By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 26, 2020) US Soccer Players - The Chicago Fire made a change to its team just a few days ahead of the launch of the 2020 Major League Soccer season on Monday. The club signed 28-year-old Argentinian midfielder Gaston Gimenez from Velez Sarsfield in his native country. Gimenez is a clever, savvy player tested by the intense soccer environments of South America who makes his new club markedly better with his arrival. The Fire added Gimenez on a Designated Player contract, completing its complement of DPs with all of them signed this winter. There might be more player acquisition business left to do, but the season arrives with Chicago restocked with talent.
Several words might apply to the changes in Chicago over the last half-year. Terms like "overhaul" or "rebuild." Or, because it might connote something more than the prosaic player moves every team makes from year-to-year, "reboot."
The borrowed computing term gets used a lot in entertainment in 2020. Old movie franchises get "rebooted" for a new audience, usually with a new cast or creative direction. Those reboots are sometimes controversial, especially among the diehard fans of the original version. Messing with passion is rarely a good idea.
Chicago's reboot goes beyond even the modern concept. The Fire didn't just reboot the club. Instead, it wiped the hard drive and installed a new operating system. A reboot doesn't change the configuration. It doesn't change the way things look. It doesn't do much but clear out the detritus that comes from operating in the same manner for too long.
The Fire reformatted.
All of this is happening because there's a new boss in charge of Chicago. Investor/operator Joe Mansueto took over the club from Andrew Hauptman in September of 2019 and immediately talked about bringing MLS success back to the city. How he intended to deliver that success wasn't clear at the time, but has come into focus since. Ownership changes happen in sports all the time. Rarely do they lead to the complete transformation executed by Mansueto over the last five months.
Entrenched Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic finally paid the price for years of mediocrity. Chicago summarily dismissed Paunovic shortly after the 2019 season ended and reassigned Rodriguez to the business side of the club's operation. The only surprising part of Paunovic's firing was how long it took for the club to make the decision. As soon as Mansueto took over and when the Fire again missed the MLS Cup playoffs, a new coach for 2020 looked inevitable.
Whoever Mansueto eventually hired to fill the two main soccer roles with the club, they'd be building a team for a different stadium. No longer content to swim upstream trying to sell Chicagoland soccer fans on the trip to Bridgeview, the Fire executed a release from their agreement at Toyota Stadium and announced a return to Soldier Field for 2020.
The logic of it is easy enough to follow considering the Fire's recent attendance woes and inability to break through the noise in Chicago's sports market. That doesn't make it any less stunning. After years of MLS clubs fighting to get stadiums of their own, the Fire willingly chose to go back to being a tenant in someone else's home.
New investor/operator, new coach, new general manager, return to an American football stadium. If that were all there was, it would still be unprecedented in league history.
The Fire kept changing. Though it's the least important in terms of the club's ability to win championships, the Fire made the bold choice to trash the only badge the club has ever used for a new, more modern design. Gone was the fire department imagery that tied the club to the history of Chicago and the event that helped transform the city into one of America's great municipalities.
In its place, the team unveiled something called the "Fire Crown." The design does away with the Fire's traditional red and blue color scheme and uses a six-pointed shape to convey the idea of fire. It's unlike anything else in MLS. The reception was universally negative.
Mansueto later opened the door for a rethink of the design down the road. For now, the Fire will be unrecognizable to many of its oldest fans. It's worth wondering why ownership kept the Fire name in light of so much change. If Mansueto wanted to reformat the club whether to reset the perception of the club in Chicago or simply to put his mark on his new purchase, it seems strange to stop where he did.
The Fire is chasing new fans, a necessity in the modern world American soccer but could be doing so at the expense of the existing fanbase. Those who stuck with the team during years of poor play and poor atmospheres shouldn't be tossed aside in the quest for recruits. At the same time, older fans should know that things won't get better for their club without big changes. It's never easy to know where the line is on demanding the club respond to losing and the club doing too much.
If the Fire wins, they'll salve wounds and capture new attention. Climbing into the list of contenders for the Eastern Conference title and a chance at the MLS Cup championship this season falls to the two men hired to replace Rodriguez and Paunovic. Georg Heitz takes the role of sporting director in Chicago, with the caveat that his job goes well beyond the usual duties of an MLS general manager.
Heitz is Swiss and arrived in MLS with a strong run at Swiss power FC Basel on his resume. He'll have a learning curve, but a recent example of foreign executives taking charge of an MLS team to good effect (Ernst Tanner in Philadelphia) suggests Heitz might thrive.
The new sporting director didn't have to go far to find a countryman he previously worked with to take the helm of the team on the field. Chicago hired former FC Basel and USMNT U15 head coach Raphael Wicky to replace Paunovic, putting into place the final non-player piece of the new-look Fire.
There's something admirable in the way Mansueto overhauled his new MLS team. There's nothing to go on in trying to predict how this will all play out for the Fire. The roster is fundamentally different. Wicky has no MLS coaching experience. Then there's the task of selling fans on Soldier Field. None of it will be easy. The new owner is making it clear the status quo wasn't good enough. Outside of the aesthetics of the logo, it's too soon to know how any of this plays out.
At least the Fire is interesting. That hasn't been true for a long time. MLS commissioner Don Garber recently pointed to the league's struggles in some of the country's biggest markets and declared that things need to get better. Altering the perception of a bad team, particularly in a sport like soccer in the United States, required drastic change. It required reformatting.
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- De Boer's situation in Atlanta
- MLS embraces the transfer saga
- With the Champions league on the schedule, LAFC and Montreal make changes
Logo courtesy of the Chicago Fire