GM Nelson Rodriguez says Fire is "not good enough yet"

GM Nelson Rodriguez says Fire is "not good enough yet"

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez has been quotable since he took over the role in October.

That's why when he hosted media in person at Toyota Park and over the phone via conference call on Friday it was an event worth following for fans of the club.

Friday's event didn't come at a good juncture for the club. The Fire are in the middle of a three-match losing streak and are dead last in Major League Soccer with one win in 10 matches.

Before taking questions for what was just over an hour, Rodriguez opened with a statement that was nearly 10 minutes long and touched on the recent struggles.

“I think it would be disingenuous for me to begin today in any other place other than acknowledging our record," Rodriguez said. " The results are obviously not as we expected. Simply, it’s not good enough, yet. For me, that’s the key word (yet).

"Winning and losing is the ultimate measure of sports, but it’s not the only way to gauge progress. It’s my job to see beyond the results, to see beyond wins and losses, to ensure that the foundation that we are building and the process that we are following is on track. And I can’t stress that enough because sometimes you can be on a winning streak and believe that everything is fine when it really isn’t, when the foundation is actually faulty. I need to ensure that we’re disciplined in our approach. I didn’t expect to be here, although we knew that there would be a point in time during the course of the year where results would not go our way. It’s one of the things I spoke to (coach Veljko Paunovic) about before the season even started, that how we handle those moments are going to be the real indicators of the type of team that we will become."

In addition to addressing the poor start, Rodriguez expanded upon what the team has done well in addition to what it hasn't.

"I believe we are learning how to compete on a daily basis," Rodriguez said. "We have not made other teams suffer during the course of games, but we have not been an easy out. There’s only been 22 minutes the entire season that we’ve been down by two goals... so that also tells me that we’re right there. We need to learn how to make a play."

Fans who have suffered through just one playoff appearance and no playoff victories in the past six seasons likely don't want to hear things about the team being close. Rodriguez acknowledged that, but did not shy away from the fact that he is balancing winning now while trying to build the team in a longer-term view.

“We owe our fans and we owe ourselves to try to win now," Rodriguez said. "We define competitiveness as relentless in the pursuit of victory, at all times, but not at all costs. So that balance is my job. It’s not Pauno’s job. Pauno’s job is three points on Saturday. He’s very clear about that and he understands that. It’s my job to ensure that what we build is sustainable and that’s the part of the future that I try to keep in mind. It's not to construct something for a fleeting moment of success."

One of the moves that Rodriguez said will help in both of those areas is the recent signing of Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw. de Leeuw is 29 and scored 56 goals in the past five seasons in the Dutch Eredivisie. That makes him both young enough to be in his prime for at least three more years and accomplished enough to, at least on paper, step in right away and be a key contributor.

de Leeuw has already signed his contract and Rodriguez said they've already begun the visa process, which delayed the debuts of John Goossens and Khaly Thiam this season. He is expected to join the Fire in early June for training and can debut after the MLS' second transfer window opens on July 4.

With de Leeuw coming and Thiam having just joined the team, Rodriguez expects to be quiet in the summer window. Instead, he said the club is already formulating a plan for next January. One of Rodriguez's stated goals has been to improve the team's scouting. He said that is still in progress, but they are using the extra time to plan for January and be properly prepared.

“First it’s with identifying targets," Rodriguez said. "Who are the players that we see or that are recommended to us that as players seem to suggest the characteristics that we’re looking for. Once we have that list, now it’s about going and seeing them in their environment... That’s the type of work that we’re trying to do so that when the leagues around the world resume in August and September, we’re in their backyard studying the players as players and learning them as people first hand.”

Despite already looking past this season in his plan for the club, Rodriguez said his goals for this season have not changed, even as a playoff spot seems to be falling out of reach early in the season.

“My expectations remain the same," he said. "My expectations are that when we hit October, we are competing for a playoff spot. That we are playing meaningful games in October."

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.