To say it has been a busy offseason for the Chicago Fire is a bit of an understatement.
To call it a rebuild doesn’t even do justice. This has been an entire overhaul for the Fire, not limited to the players on the field.
General manager Nelson Rodriguez was the first one put in place with the task of turning around the Fire, which have made the playoffs just once in the past six years. Rodriguez then picked out coach Veljko Paunovic, who preaches positivity and belief like it’s a religion.
Since those two have been in charge, the roster turnover began. Just 10 players from the 2015 squad remain with the Fire. Still, despite recognizing the need to make drastic changes within the club this offseason, Rodriguez's first impression after he was hired last season was about the fans.
“Surprisingly what resonated with me was how much support remained for the team," Rodriguez said. "We have to be honest, last year was a miserable season with just dire results. Yet even the last game of the regular season we find ourselves down 2-0 to New York Red Bulls, we get a goal back and the fans are just urging us on, completely supportive at all times. You could see the Red Bulls wobble a little bit on the field, which signals to me the strength and the power of our fan base. If we can give them more reason to believe and put results behind it we’re going to have a fantastic home environment.”
Once Paunovic was in tow, the pair were able to start building their vision of the Fire. Rodriguez said they share a similar view of the game, which made the process much easier.
On the flip side, Rodriguez admitted that scouting and recruitment needs some work. With a focus on acquiring international players — the Fire had just two of eight international spots filled following the trade of Joevin Jones on draft day — that became a very important aspect of the offseason. Finding and bringing in players from various countries and leagues required a slightly different approach.
“Scouting and recruitment is an area that we must improve as a club going forward so this offseason we’ve had to rely on relationships and contacts that we’ve had rather than a proactive approach to scouting and recruitment, which we’ll look to institute as soon as the summer transfer window," Rodriguez said. "We’ve been fortunate in having good people help us identify some people. We’re very methodical and meticulous to our four stages of evaluation because we really want to make sure that the person that we bring in will fit as much or even better than the talent that we bring in.”
Despite the challenge of acquiring international players without a proactive approach to scouting, Rodriguez said the busy offseason went according to plan. The Fire netted Brandon Vincent, a probable starter at left back, Jonathan Campbell, a potential long-term solution at center back, and Alex Morrell, a speedy winger who plays a position of little depth for the team. International players Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Rodrigo Ramos and John Goossens have joined and all figure to see regular playing time.
Rodriguez admits there's more to do and the team is still targeting international players in midfield, but is happy with how things have turned out.
“It’s really gone according to plan," he said. "We’re in the midst of some negotiations that we’re optimistic that we will close positively."
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So now that Sunday's season opener is just days away, making the playoffs remains the first goal. What should fans expect from the team though?
“What I expect and what the fans should demand is effort everyday in every training session and in every game," Rodriguez said. "That’s not to say we won’t have some clunkers along the way. (In a) 34-game season everyone will.
"The character expectation I have is that we will continue to work the same way. We will continue to have a positive attitude, high energy. It’s the environment that Pauno and the coaching staff has created. I expect that to carry us through those difficult moments, but you will have a team on the field that in every game and every instance will look to win. We will play to win.”