BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – “We need to do better.”
That was the overarching theme of Chicago Fire president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s final media roundtable of 2019. Rodriguez outlined the club’s offseason outlook, both on the field with reshaping the roster under new ownership and off the field in searching for new strategies that yield better results.
“Something in our environment needs to improve,” Rodriguez said, reflecting on a season that saw the Fire finish eighth in the Eastern Conference and miss out on the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. “In my analysis, our football did not let us down. ... I think our talent level was enough.”
The first priority will be to maintain that on-field quality. The Fire moved Monday to exercise 2020 contract options on Homegrown rookie Jeremiah Gutjahr, veteran midfielder Micheal Azira and midfielder/forward Fabian Herbers.
Rodriguez will have conversations with several of the club’s out-of-contract players and their representatives in the next week, including midfielders Dax McCarty and Nico Gaitan, as well as winger Aleksandar Katai.
“For me, the conversation always centers around does the player want to be here?” Rodriguez said of his approach, specifically speaking about Gaitan, who would be a Designated Player in 2020 if the club exercises his option.
The club’s only remaining DP from 2019 is Katai, who the Fire can either keep as a DP or Targeted Allocation Money player. This follows the exits of both defender/midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and forward Nemanja Nikolic in the past week. Rodriguez says he hopes the club can have a continuing, mutually-beneficial relationship with Schweinsteiger.
“We want it to be significant and not ceremonial, where his football intelligence, his values and his connections can contribute to the club rather than it be just him putting his pretty face as an endorsement,” Rodriguez said.
As for Nikolic, Rodriguez called the 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner “the best teammate I’ve ever been around” and wished him well in his future endeavors. In filling two or three DP slots, Rodriguez emphasized Chicago's roster-building strategy won't stop there.
“I think DPs need to finish the puzzle,” he said. “I think you need to make sure that the scaffolding is strong enough to support DPs. I actually feel good about the scaffolding.”
The plan is to first add several other players, which began with signing former Real Madrid and Valencia midfielder Alvaro Medran. The Fire are actively pursuing additional targets in Spain, Poland, Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico, according to Rodriguez.
Such roster decisions and deliberations have begun amid ongoing questions of whether head coach Veljko Paunovic will return next season. Rodriguez did not give a definitive answer, but said he will have conversations with the coaching staff in a manner similar to the players.
“You are what your record says you are," Rodriguez said in regards to the coaching staff and front office. "…I have some things in mind that need to be changed."
Such changes will include an addition to the club’s technical staff who will focus on the first team, alleviating some of Rodriguez’s current soccer-related duties. An exact job description hasn't yet been defined, with Rodriguez saying that the “qualities of the individual will dictate” the role.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of any changes will be measured by Chicago returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Doing so, according to Rodriguez, requires a thorough and complete reevaluation from the top down.
“I think that’s a shared responsibility,” he said. “I don’t think it’s about assigning blame, and I think we have to find a shared solution.”