By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 19, 2023) US Soccer Players – When Chicago hired Ezra Hendrickson away from his position as an assistant coach with the Columbus Crew, his move into a top job in MLS felt long overdue. The former MLS defender arrived in Chicago in November 2021 with a reputation as one of the most respected assistant coaches in the league. Few first-time coaches get jobs that set them up for immediate success. There’s almost inevitably a lot of work to do.
Hendrickson has a wealth of experience in the staff working under him in Chicago, with a trio of former US internationals who also played for the Fire. That group includes former Fire and Montreal Impact head coach Frank Klopas, CJ Brown, a former defender with 372 appearances in 13 seasons playing for the Fire, and Zach Thornton, a two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. All three played for the club in their inaugural, double-winning season of 1998. Together, Klopas, Brown, and Thornton have 62 caps for the United States with Klopas a member of the 1994 World Cup squad.
Klopas rejoined the club as an assistant in 2020, but Hendrickson specifically tapped Brown and Thornton to be part of his staff since taking the job. Brown joined for Hendrickson’s first season in 2022 with years of experience as an assistant coach with Real Salt Lake, the Fire in 2014, NYCFC, Orlando City, and the New York Red Bulls and was the technical director and head coach of NISA club Chicago House in 2021. Thornton arrived in December as goalkeeping coach after holding that role with DC United from 2015-21 and with the Houston Dynamo in 2022. Junior Gonzalez, who also joined last December with assistant coaching experience at Chivas USA, Seattle Sounders 2, and the LA Galaxy and Galaxy II, completes Hendrickson’s coaching staff. Brown and Gonzalez also have experience as assistants with USMNT youth teams.
Chicago hasn’t made the postseason since 2017. Hendrickson and his staff are working not just to win games, but under sporting director George Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer who both joined in December 2019, to change a culture. In Hendrickson’s first season in charge, the Fire came well short of a playoff berth, finishing nine points back of the final spot in 12th-place. On some level, that was progress. Chicago finished in the same 12th-place in 2021 but missed out on the playoff by 14 points.
There were bright spots, especially the emergence of talented young players like Gaga Slonina and Jhon Duran, but the team failed to find consistent play during any protracted run of games. Slonina left to join Chelsea at the end of the season, and the club transferred Duran to Aston Villa in January.
Eight games into the 2023 season, there’s reason to believe that the work to turn the Fire into a playoff team is beginning to show. With roughly a quarter of the regular season already played, the Fire is holding its own in the chase for a postseason spot in the Eastern Conference.
Injuries have complicated Hendrickson’s work, but the numbers tell an encouraging tale. The difference between Chicago sitting comfortably in the upper echelon of the conference and its current 7-place is a few bad moments.
The club is a respectable 14th out of 29 clubs in expected goals according to American Soccer Analysis. The club’s 9.30 xG through seven goals is a fraction below its real-world output of 10, with the caveat that Jairo Torres and Xherdan Shaqiri have both missed time through injury. Shaqiri came on as a substitute in the Fire’s 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, his first action since March 11.
Without Shaqiri, the Fire has relied on veteran forward Kei Kamara, who is currently three goals behind Landon Donovan for second place on the all-time MLS goal scoring list), homegrown player Brian Guttierez, loanee Maren Hailie-Selassie, and USMNT winger Chris Mueller.
Mueller is a local kid who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg before moving on to the University of Wisconsin and drafted by Orlando in 2018. His years with Orlando City made him one of the top wingers in the league. He hit his peak in Florida in 2020 when he scored 10 goals in the COVID-abbreviated 22-game regular season.
He returned to MLS from a short stint in Scotland with Hibernian in 2022 and joined his hometown team in Chicago midway through last season. At the time of his arrival, Mueller pointed to the chance to play for the Fire and the belief Hendrickson showed in him as key reasons for his decision to sign with the club.
Mueller’s relentless effort on both sides of the ball is a crucial part of the Fire’s offensive-defensive balance. The winger scored twice through the first eight games of the season and is third on the team behind Kamara and Haille-Sellasie in xG. If he can keep up that pace, he’ll have a shot at besting his career high from 2020.
With a bit more luck and a fix of the problem of giving up what Hendrickson called “soft goals,” the Fire could be significantly higher up the table. Chicago’s only loss of the season happened on March 11 in a 1-0 decision against the Union, a game altered by a 50th-minute red card. The trend is a good one for the Fire, even if it’s clear the club is not quite over the proverbial hump.
The Fire goes to Atlanta on Saturday and hosts the Red Bulls a week later with an Open Cup match in between. It’s another chance to measure progress against solid Eastern Conference foes.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Chicago Fire FC