Early on in his tenure as Chicago Fire general manager, Nelson Rodriguez said he thinks teams in Major League Soccer need a group of several core players to succeed in the league.
“We believe that in order to succeed for sustained periods of time at championship level within MLS you need seven-to-nine steady starters, year in and year out,” Rodriguez said in January.
As a result of that line and his continued stated belief in needing a key core group of players, every time local media is gathered with Rodriguez he is asked about that and where the team stands on that front. After all, Rodriguez also said, “Our hope would be that at the end of this season that we start to approach that number.”
So when Rodriguez hosted local media on Tuesday at Toyota Park, he was again asked about the core players and how he believes the team has progressed in that area.
“We have a core that we’ve built on,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s five, six solid players and then three or four others that could be in and out of that 11 if you want to just use that 11 as a guide. But if someone else comes along and presents an opportunity where we think we can improve that core, we will do so.”
Rodriguez wouldn’t bring up names that he believes are part of the core, but it’s believable to think Michael de Leeuw, David Accam, Johan Kappelhof and perhaps younger players like Matt Polster and Jonathan Campbell are somewhere in that mix. In the offseason Rodriguez said the Fire had four core players and mentioned Polster and Harry Shipp as two more he believed could become part of that group with continued development. Shipp was traded about a month after that comment while Polster made 24 starts this season and played for the U.S. Olympic qualifying team.
Results-wise, this season was not what Rodriguez had in mind in terms of progress. The Fire remained last in the league and earned just one more point than in 2015, but Rodriguez said that doesn’t change anything.
“It doesn’t alter our plans, it doesn’t alter our approach,” Rodriguez said. “But I know today that the first five games of next year are going to be under a magnifying glass for all of us. We’ll deal with that. This may be the only time that I have this job. I know for me I make sure I do it in the way that I think is best, in the way that I think leads us to building a championship program.”
For a fan base that has seen the club miss the playoffs now six of the past seven seasons, believing Rodriguez when he says the club has improved its core may not be so easy. With that in mind, Rodriguez wouldn’t evaluate his team based on what happened before he arrived, saying 2016 was “the start of a new process.”
“I respect that from the fans it’s a different continuum,” he said. “Last season was a continuation of something else, or two seasons ago if you will. This past season was the first season of a three-year plan.”
As Rodriguez and the Fire head into the second year of his so-called three-year plan, Rodriguez admitted that the lack of results this season makes progress harder to see.
“I would have liked to have seen more results, more positive results that would certainly give more validity to what we’re doing,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s at a time when Pauno and I are trying to push standards, trying to push players out of their comfort zone, trying to push elements of the organization forward out of its comfort zone. When the results don’t accompany you, you don’t have the legitimacy that you’d like to have. So in terms of assembling talent, in terms of instituting our methodology, I think we’re OK. In terms of results I think we’re clearly behind.”