New Chicago Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez has his work cut out for him, but he's confident in handling the task at hand, writes Brian Straus.
Nelson Rodriguez doesn’t plan on spending too much time in his new Toyota Park office, at least for the foreseeable future. So his needs were relatively minimal.
“The only thing I require out of an office is that there’s a window,” he said.
The view from that window isn’t great. Objectively, it’s better than a wall only if you really appreciate asphalt. The Chicago Fire’s nine-year-old stadium is surrounded by a ton of it, in addition to the warehouses, empty lots, humble apartments and nondescript intersections that characterize that part of Bridgeview, Illinois.
But when the sun shines through and Rodriguez looks out, he sees only the bright side.
“It keeps me grounded and makes me realize there’s a lot of pavement we’ve got to pound to restore the glory,” the club’s new general manager told SI.com this week, his first on the job. “I see unbelievable opportunity.”
Chicago was a Major League Soccer powerhouse when it moved the 14 miles from Soldier Field to Bridgeview in 2006. Launched in 1998, the organization already had won one MLS Cup, one Supporters' Shield, three U.S. Open Cup championships and four conference/division titles. It then claimed the ’06 Open Cup for good measure. Rodriguez called the Fire “one of the three great clubs in MLS history.”
Then the decline began. The lack of development outside the stadium has been eclipsed by the regression inside. Chicago fell in the Eastern Conference final for three straight seasons and then in 2010, it stumbled into a miserable six-year stretch during which it made the playoffs only once. Interim coach Brian Bliss is the seventh man to hold the position since the Fire moved to Toyota Park. But for many fans, owner Andrew Hauptman is to blame for the freefall.
The Los Angeles-based investor took over in mid-2007 and hasn’t been shy about spending money. He put $3 million toward upgrades at the stadium, which is owned by the city, and paid $20 million for the PrivateBank Fire Pitch, a public field complex on Chicago’s north side. Hauptman injects more than $1 million per year into the Fire’s academy, which is fully funded down to U-10, and has tried to sign big-name players like Didier Drogba and Jermaine Jones. According to the MLS Players Union’s September figures, the Fire’s first-team payroll ranked 11th in the 20-team league.
But none of it has had a positive impact on the field. Chicago (8-19-6) is guaranteed to finish with the league’s worst record regardless of the result of Sunday’s season finale against the visiting New York Red Bulls. There have been protests inside Toyota Park and elsewhere in Chicago. But Hauptman stayed quiet and declined to counter the miserable narrative until finally dismissing head coach and director of soccer Frank Yallop last month.
The same day, Sept. 20, Rodriguez was named the Fire’s new general manager. A long-time MLS executive who ran Chivas USA on the league’s behalf during its final season and then spent the past year working with the U.S. Soccer Federation advising junior and senior national team players, Rodriguez now is responsible for cleaning up the mess and setting a new course.
There are those who might see the bleak records and bleak surroundings and consider the job impossible. There are those who might wonder if Hauptman is sufficiently caring or conscientious and whether any executive can succeed on this owner’s watch. Rodriguez isn’t among them. His faith in his new boss and the Fire’s potential in a crowded but sports-mad market is such that he traded away the security and relative anonymity of his position at U.S. Soccer in order to take it on.
“We have the resources at this club to build the program that we think will lead us back to the glory that we experienced,” Rodriguez said. “It kills Andrew, eats away at him, that the team hasn’t had on-field success. He’s hurt by it. I dare say he’s embarrassed by it. No person who cares as much isn’t affected by that, and he does care … I think Andrew is misunderstood. Maybe his humility has worked against him because he hasn’t come front and center. But I know from my time at the league office and am quite certain based on the conversations we’ve had, that he’s committed to building a model club in MLS and winning is a big part of it.”
A New Jersey native who coached college soccer at Lafayette and worked for the 1994 World Cup organizing committee and the New York Red Bulls (then the MetroStars) before joining MLS in 2000, Rodriguez was promoted to executive VP and interacted with just about every owner and club executive during his tenure at the league office. That included Hauptman, who occasionally would seek Rodriguez’s advice. Hauptman did so when he fired coach Frank Klopas in 2013, in fact, but apparently didn’t follow it.
“Part of the conversation that Andrew and I had recently, which led to my coming here, he said, ‘I reflected on my notes from our conversation and I realized that there were certain things you mentioned that I either wasn’t ready to accept or I didn’t accept, but I understand now.’ That is an incredibly humbling statement,” Rodriguez said. “He is a big reason I wanted this job. I do believe that he’s humble. I do believe he listens and takes feedback.”
Rodriguez has been empowered to rebuild the Fire’s soccer structure, and he’s going to start toward the top.
The best way to mend fences with frustrated fans and an ambivalent press corps is winning, he said, and that begins with hiring the right head coach. Considering the market, history and Rodriguez’s reputation, it should be a sought after job.
“I think there will be available to us, and are already, some excellent coaches—coaches with international pedigree, coaches with a domestic history of success and all the rest of it. But that alone is not enough to necessarily make them right for the Fire,” Rodriguez said. “I have very definitive ideas in mind of how to proceed. That said, I want a head coach who’s going to be my partner, who’s going to pressure test what I say and vice versa. In that collaboration, we might find a third option that’s even better than his or mine, so to speak.”
Rodriguez said he believes that, “The head coach should not be the czar.” The pressure and commitment to earning three points on Saturday doesn’t always align with building the infrastructure of a club for the mid and long-term. As the league evolves, the stakes and costs rise and academy and USL teams enter the picture, it becomes too much for most people to handle. Whether or not Rodriguez pursues additional help on the technical side depends on how the new coach fits.
“When we look at the strengths of the head coach and I balance that against my strengths, we’ll look to see where the gaps are and how we may seek to cover them,” he said. “I’m opened minded to seek the best people first, put them in the right spots and see how it works, then fill in the gaps.”
He hopes to have a coach in place by Thanksgiving.
“We can’t wait to see who’s available [in December]. That would be negligent. We have a list of candidates already and I’ve been naively surprised at some of the folks who’ve expressed interest,” Rodriguez said.
There’s considerable work to do on the roster as well, which isn’t surprising for a club that has won a paltry 14 of the 67 MLS matches scheduled over the past two seasons. Rodriguez and his future partner should have some leeway. Designated Players David Accam and Gilberto, along with one-time DP Kennedy Igboananike, are under contract next year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be moved.
Mike Magee ($400,000 base salary) will be out of contract, while the likes of Jeff Larentowicz ($265,000), Lovel Palmer ($118,000) and Adaílton ($200,000) enter option years. There will be money to spend if Rodriguez and his coach pull the right strings.
“I don’t want this to be misconstrued as a comment against our current Designated Players, but I would say that the DP should finish the puzzle, not start it,” Rodriguez said. “I’m putting the puzzle together and I’m confident that if it makes sense, we certainly have the wherewithal to do what we need to do. Those choices will be mine to make.”
He’ll make them on the move. Rodriguez believes in “A lot of face to face.” He wants to meet with coaching candidates in person, as well as their references. He wants to go watch college games—the Fire will have the first pick in January’s draft—and chat with scouts and others who follow other levels of the sport. He prefers a “hands-on” approach. He won’t be on the training field, he said, but he will spend time with players in order to ensure that, “The standard we wish to set for the soccer operation are being met or exceeded.”
He’s already engaged with supporters as well. When U.S. Soccer granted him a couple days at the beginning of October to meet his new colleagues at Toyota Park and get the lay of the land, he went on his own to The Globe Pub, a Chicago bar popular with soccer fans.
Rodriguez said he found that interest in the Fire hadn’t waned. It was still their club. But optimism had faded. Luckily, optimism is what Rodriguez does well.
“There is a real bond here with this club,” he said. “And I think there’s a whole bunch of other people who are just waiting to come back or jump on board if we can just give them enough reason to. All of that comes down to one thing and one thing only—winning.”
No one knows MLS better than Rodriguez. But this job represents a different sort of challenge. He wasn’t judged by wins and losses during his tenure at the league office, and he wasn’t the one charged with instituting a corporate and competitive culture. Nevertheless, his appointment has been regarded inside U.S. soccer circles as a smart move by an owner who needed to make one. It’s crunch time for the Fire. A glorious history is fading fast.
“My dream was to be [former Real Salt Lake owner] Dave Checketts,” Rodriguez said of his transition from coaching to management. “I wanted to preside over some great sports program and Andrew’s been kind enough to give me that opportunity and I’m going to give him everything I have to fulfill my fantasy and reward his faith.”
He understands the stakes and the desperation, and he wants to hire a coach who feels the same. Together, Rodriguez believes they can make Toyota Park a much more attractive place to be.
“I feel like I’ve pushed all my chips in, taking this job,” he said. “I’m 50, and if I don’t succeed and the Fire don’t succeed, I think my opportunities in pro soccer will be vastly diminished, if not extinct, at the end of this run. I want someone who has that same sense of urgency to succeed as I do.”