Gearing up for a Chicago Fire matchday is nothing new for Eric Gehrig, but his role is different this year.
After spending the last two years as a defender for the Fire, Gehrig was on the sideline of Saturday's season opener in Columbus as an assistant coach.
"It's different, but I realize how lucky I am to get this opportunity to coach in MLS," Gehrig said.
Gehrig made 25 starts in 2015, his first season with the Fire, and was named the club's defender of the year. Last season did not go as smoothly for Gehrig, who was injured to start the season and struggled to find playing time after he came back. He made five appearances, three starts, in MLS play and the Fire declined his option after the season.
At 29, Gehrig wasn't expecting to end his playing career yet. He still had opportunities to play, but the Fire approached him with something different.
"I had a checklist of things I wanted in my next move as a player and then out of nowhere this opportunity came up," Gehrig said. "I had a few days to think about it and I talked it over with my family and my loved ones and I just thought that whether I retire in a year, two years, three years, then I don't know if I'd have this opportunity. Of course no one wants to shut the door on their playing career, but I also realized one day it's going to happen. I just don't know I'll have an opportunity of this magnitude down the road."
Logan Pause, another former Fire player, was an assistant coach last year, but left for a job with expansion team Los Angeles FC. Pause is heading LAFC's USL affiliate, Orange County SC, and will be an assistant on the LAFC staff next year when that club debuts. Gehrig filled that opening, but Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic said they had already been considering adding Gehrig in another role.
"It's not something that we did because Logan left," Paunovic said. "Even when Logan was here, as I said, we were discussing if Eric in the future could help. We believe that he is happy with that opportunity that he could help the team and the staff and obviously the club. When we had the opportunity to speak with him he was thrilled."
Gehrig is from Chicagoland and played collegiately at Loyola. He is a big fan of Chicago sports teams and when it comes to the Fire, as he put it, he "grew up with the club." Staying home was a part of the decision and he said the only negative was ending his playing career.
He was with the Fire on the first day of preseason training in Chicago. Gehrig was initially a coaching trialist.
"He wanted to give it a try and during the preseason everything went very good," Paunovic said. "In this role I believe he's doing very well. He's also developing, learning. He's very helpful to the staff and right now we see him as a very important part of our staff."
Both sides were happy with how things were going when Gehrig was with the team in the preseason. The move became official on Feb. 15.
"It's a hard decision, but you got to make the decisions that work for you and are good for your life long-term," Gehrig said. "That's the decision I made. I sat down with both Pauno and Nelson. We had a good conversation before it all came about. After that I was pretty much sold."
At 29, Gehrig is younger than six players on the Fire's roster. However, he thinks the familiarity with most of the players is beneficial.
"I feel last year as a veteran player, in a way I was essentially coach," Gehrig said. “Obviously I wasn't their coach, but I always did leading and directing on the field, especially from my position. It hasn't been that much of a transition for me to be honest."
Gehrig said he is still learning a lot about being a coach, but added he is becoming "more comfortable every day."
Paunovic saw Gehrig as a good fit as a coach and had conversations along those lines when Gehrig was a player.
"Last year I remember when I spoke with him, I told him if I were a player and I met you when I was a player for sure we would be very good teammates," Paunovic said. "Because I like his communication, his values, he is very honest. His approach is very direct."
While Gehrig is assimilating to his new role as a coach, the Fire do only have seven defenders under contract currently. If the Fire run into bad luck with injuries to the back line and are thin in numbers, would Gehrig consider a temporary return in the case of an emergency?
"We haven't talked about that at all, but of course I'm not opposed to ever doing that," Gehrig said. "I'm focusing on the coaching thing. I'm embracing it. I'm swallowing all those feelings of me wanting to play, which to be honest there haven't been that many."