What is Wrong with the Chicago Fire?

The first Chicago Fire game I ever remember going to was in 2008. My cousin was ball running for the Fire, and David Beckham was playing his first game in Chicago as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy. The year was a good one for the Fire, as they made it to the conference finals, losing out to one of their bitter rivals, the Columbus Crew, and their star, MVP Guillermo Barros Schelloto. The following year was also a good one for the Men in Red, as they again reached the conference finals, this time falling to Real Salt Lake on penalties. Things were looking up for Chicago- after being dominant immediately after being founded, the team was finally back on its feet after a few years of mediocrity. Until they weren’t.

In the 2009/10 offseason, manager Denis Hamlett was relieved of his duties and replaced by former El Salvador manager Carlos de los Cobos. His hiring started a long run of inconsistent form for Chicago- they have only made the playoffs once in the last five seasons, and have never finished higher than 4th in their conference. For this season, I predicted that the Fire would finish with 40 points, a decent amount for a team in a relative rebuild. They are currently on pace to obtain 35 points, failing to obtain the modest number I set for them in my prediction. Bleacher Report recently penned an article that said the Fire are the most disappointing team in MLS. So what has brought this once-storied franchise (as storied as a franchise younger than me can be) to its knees? There are four possible contributing factors: the owner, the technical staff, the manager, and the players.

We’ll start at the top with owner Andrew Hauptman, who as been the front man for the franchise since he bought the club from AEG Holdings back in 2007. The Anschultz Corporation CEO Phillip Anschultz, the man whose company oversaw the Fire’s previous owners, was (probably) always going to be a bigger soccer enthusiast than Hauptman- Anschultz was one of the founders of Major League Soccer and had a major role in the formation of the Fire and 6 other MLS teams. Even so, performance of the team has been nothing close to what one would expect from a team that plays in as big of a marker as the Fire do. Many have criticized Hauptman, who lives and works in Los Angeles, as an owner who doesn’t care much about the well-being of his team, that he frequently makes the safe, easy choices because he is simply uninterested in putting too much effort into the team. They cite his lack of action in bringing in designated players as a major issue- his relative lack of fight over the allocation of US Men’s National Team stalwart Jermaine Jones to the New England Revolution and his willingness to bend over to allow former Ivory Coast and Chelsea star Didier Drogba to play in his preferred locale, Montreal, instead of playing in the Windy City, to name two recent examples. Hauptman may also be criticized because he is not super comfortable in the public eye, and that whenever he does decide to make appearances on behalf of the team, he tends to, rightly or wrongly, be judged poorly, alienating the fan base. Hauptman did bail the team out when few were interested in buying the team from AEG, and his business senses are often very astute, as he has introduced different, more modern changes to the club’s hierarchy, such as introducing a technical director, and has managed to keep the team profitable (and worth a fair amount, by MLS standards) by being careful with which players he invests in, but the club’s lack of success has brought him under a lot of fire (pun intended) from supporters.

The director of soccer operations (or technical director, here in the US) has been an important role in Europe for almost two decades now (or semi-important role, depending on the club). While what the person in the job does is relatively unclear, the best description that I can give is that the person in the role works to help make sure the team stays in line with the salary cap, assisting the manager (and the league) in the signing and scouting of players, and overseeing the club’s academy. The Fire have had two technical directors- former coach and star forward Frank Klopas, and the current one, former Columbus Crew technical director Brian Bliss. Outside of the signing of 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee, Klopas struggled in his role, as his Designated Player signings were, on a scale of 1-10, closer to the 1 than they were to the 10. But Bliss has done a pretty decent job. Young star Harry Shipp joined the Fire under a Homegrown Player spot and has become the fulcrum of the team. Scottish star Shaun Maloney was relatively affective before being transferred to Hull City, speedster David Accam has arguably been the team’s best DP since Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and Kennedy Igboananike has finally started to catch fire (again, pun intended). Bliss, too, has overseen an academy that has recently seen Shipp and Matt Polster ascend to high standing in the US youth teams. Obviously, what improvements are made in the coming years will have a lot of effect on whether or not Bliss’s tenure is considered successful, but it’s been so far, so good for the former USMNT defender.

The manager post at the club used to be a sought after position. The original coach of the team was Bob Bradley, who would go on to be the manager of the USMNT. The coach that succeeded him was Dave Sarachan, an assistant coach for the USMNT under Bruce Arena before going to Chicago. After Sarachan was fired, and Andrew Hauptman came in as general managing partner of the club, the managerial hires in the Windy City have been creative ones, but ones that have largely been failures. Juan Carlos Osorio, Hamlett, de los Cobos, and Klopas each lasted less than two seasons in the job. The biggest issue with the current manager, Frank Yallop, is his lack of creativity. He has been criticized for playing unattractive, more defensive tactics, which, with a team with simply an average in a league when the attacking prowess is increasing, it has slightly backfired on Yallop. As a veteran MLS manager, Yallop has tended to pick experienced veterans, such as Bakary Soumare, Patrick Ianni, and Guly do Prado over younger, more prolific players, like Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, and Quincy Amarikwa, decisions that have come back to bite Yallop. These relatively bland tactics, and his personnel mismanagement, has seen the Fire struggle to form some chemistry with one particular lineup, which has definitely harmed the team’s results. Yallop, however, has had to make due with the slim roster options that he has been given, and seems to have finally found midfield and forward rotations that he likes, no mean feats considering the sudden departure of Maloney and Magee’s return from injury, so while the team’s performance hasn’t exactly been top notch, it is obvious that his years of experience piloting the lesser-heeled teams in the league (Yallop was the head coach of the re-formed San Jose Earthquakes from 2008 until he took the reins in Chicago) has been a big plus.

This year’s crop of players are as good as any in the past five years or so, but are just as inconsistent as ever. The team is backstopped by Sean Johnson, who is arguably one of the best keepers in MLS. The defense is marshalled by captain Jeff Larentowicz, but has been largely disappointing this season, as injuries to Adailton and Ty Harden, along with streaky play from Larentowicz, fellow center back Eric Gehrig, and outside back Lovel Palmer have seen the Fire allow more goals than 14 teams in the league. The midfield has probably been the brightest spot in this team, but has still managed to underwhelm. Maloney was a good veteran addition to the team, but injuries lessened the impact that the Scot had on the team. Right winger Patrick Nyarko is starting to find form, but he, too, has struggled with injuries. Accam has been a revelation on the left wing, and the center of midfield has been steadily anchored by Shipp and Polster. Up front, Igboananike and new acquisition Gilberto lead the line- both are known for being prolific talents, but seem to have on/off switches in terms of production.

So there’s a lot of goods and bads that can be seen in each of the categories that could be to blame for the Chicago Fire being one of the worst soccer teams in the country. For me, the problem lies with how the club generally seems to be stuck in a rut of “conservatism.” Let me explain what I mean by that- the club built around a traditional strongman, Larentowicz, at center back, a traditional number 10 in Shipp, and a traditional poacher in Magee. The team is not aggressive in any one particular area, either soccer related (looking for unusual fits in certain positions) or business related (marketing, recruiting and keeping fan interest). They are not doing anything along the lines of, say, the Seattle Sounders, a team that is willing to splash the cash om players with different styles, from different demographics, like former Premier Leaguers Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, mix and match them with role-playing veterans that want to play to win, all while getting the fans involved to make a successful club and a solid top-to-bottom organization. The Fire aren’t being aggressive enough to find talented players that don’t fit the traditional soccer player mold, and for that, their on-field performance, and fan interest, is quickly waning. This conservative feel to the organization starts at the top with Hauptman- he needs to seriously consider selling the team to a more avid soccer fan, possibly someone more local, that will take a greater interest in the team and help rejuvenate its fan base. His next in command soccer wise, Yallop, should be allowed to stay for a regime change, but should be on a short leash if he fails to adjust to the new, (hopefully) pragmatic owner, because if, and (hopefully) when the new owner takes over, the direction of the franchise needs to be reversed 180 degrees to make it relevant again.

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