Chicago Fire FC checked off one of the many items on their long winter to-do list on Friday, announcing the hire of heretofore US Under-17 national team boss Raphael Wicky as their new head coach. It’s an interesting and possibly very smart hire. For the time being, though, it's also a move that is impossible to separate from the complex context in which it’s being made.
Wicky’s selection is the result of a search process that was overseen by new sporting director Georg Heitz, a former coworker of Wicky at FC Basel in the duo's native Switzerland. Heitz’s arrival — announced one week prior to Wicky’s — means that even if Heitz had taken up his duties well before the official announcement, he only had a couple of weeks at most to canvas the coaching world, evaluate and interview candidates. And Chicago’s 2020 season opener is barely two months away.
Here’s what new Fire owner Joe Mansueto said a little over a week ago:
“We don’t have much time. We got to get going. So I think the sooner the better. So we’re in the midst of that now. We are pushing it ahead as fast as we can on this. So the sooner the better, is the timetable.”
Now, Wicky and Heitz worked together for several years at FC Basel, the Swiss club that in recent decades helped groom (and sell on) a long list of top players, including Ivan Rakitic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Yann Sommer and some guy named Mo Salah. Heitz has also worked closely with new Chicago technical director Sebastian Pelzer. It’s not hard to speculate that the shared history among the three had a big impact on Fire FC’s final decisions.
So what, and why not? Chemistry and shared values go a long way, and you could do a lot worse than to put your trust in a triumvirate that includes two individuals with hands-on experience inside one of Europe’s most adept evaluators and developers of talent. Even with new management, a new brand and stadium, and myriad other changes this offseason in the wake of years of sustained organizational underachievement, the Windy City club have a lot to offer potential recruits from home and abroad alike.
MLS as a whole is rapidly growing more comfortable and efficient with the process that Basel mastered long ago, and there’s no reason that the Fire can’t get in on that, and improve both their results on the field and their bottom line. Wicky cut his coaching teeth in FCB’s academy. He’s spent the past six months immersed in the United States’ youth talent pool. And though his (and his players’) reputation took a big hit when the US U-17s faceplanted at the World Cup this fall, he’d earned respect for that team’s fluid, proactive soccer in qualifying despite being hired just a few weeks beforehand.
TopDrawerSoccer.com’s JR Eskilson is one of the most experienced youth soccer journalists on the continent and he doesn’t dish out praise like this all that often:
Same thing as the quarterfinal win. USA just trounces the opposition in the second half with silky passing movements. This 11-pass sequence (probably) should've ended in the back of the net. This team is playing the best soccer I've seen from a @USYNT #usmnt #CU17 pic.twitter.com/4w74iYECGN— J.R. Eskilson (@JREskilson) May 14, 2019
Here’s where I hit you with the Stephen A. Smith-style “HOWEVER…”
Earlier today in an instant message conversation with my colleague Matt “The Armchair Analyst” Doyle, I argued that if they really wanted to, the Fire could refashion themselves into a Great Lakes version of FC Dallas in as little as 18 months.
Chicagoland is one of the only U.S. metro areas with a larger population than Dallas/Fort Worth’s, and it’s packed with soccer talent and culture. Renew the academy well, mend fences in the local community, crank up the Homegrown apparatus, then augment the products with some smart drafting and trading and a couple of savvy, ambitious transfer windows. Boom, you’re in business, right?
The issue is, it’s far from clear that such a shift would be in keeping with the overhaul already underway. With the return to Soldier Field and all that’s come with it, Mansueto seems eager to make the Fire a big thing at the heart of the city as soon as possible. Beyond an updated name, crest and kits, that may require a dramatic, sexy sort of on-pitch product as soon as possible, whether it’s headlined by a head-turning signing (or two) like Chicharito Hernandez, or something even bigger.
Growing your own? Installing thoughtful, methodical, play-out-of-the back tiki-taka? Punching up with a young, underdog mentality? Those are different propositions. I’d reckon the Chi’s soccer community is shrewd enough to buy that ticket and take the ride if they were given sufficient reasons to invest their time, money and belief, but it’s a fundamentally more nuanced product for Mansueto & Co. to sell.
So just who are Chicago Fire FC? Wicky’s arrival only takes us marginally closer to knowing the answer.