The first full season for Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez and the first season for coach Veljko Paunovic did not yield notably better results than the year before.
A year ago, the Fire managed just 30 points, the lowest total in club history, and gave up a league-worst 58 goals.
Despite much change within the team and staff, the Fire managed 31 points this year and picked up one fewer win. The Fire scored one fewer goal than last season (42 vs. 43) and allowed the same number of goals.
Rodriguez, when speaking at the final of three Q&A sessions with local media on Tuesday, even remarked that “it’s incredible” how similar the two seasons were.
“When I first came here and I first took the job just over a year ago, I have to be honest, I never for one second saw a last place finish,” Rodriguez said. “I thought that progress would see more results and I thought it would be much easier to show tangible progress than what I think most people can look at this year.”
Still, Rodriguez spoke highly of the additions he and Paunovic made in the offseason, saying all of them “proved themselves as MLS players” to some degree. The Fire do have more younger players that appear to be viable long-term options than a year ago thanks to the emergence of rookie defenders Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent, for example.
But if the on-field results didn’t show the change, where is it?
“I think one big thing that has changed over the course of our eight or nine months with the group is we learned how to compete,” Rodriguez said. “What we didn’t learn was how to win. We had many self-inflicted wounds throughout the year. We unfortunately seemed to repeat some mistakes, some of that can be attributed to youth, some of that can be attributed to lack of cohesion that only comes by being together over time.”
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Many of the players had exit physicals on Tuesday at Toyota Park, although some are already out of town, marking the official start of the offseason. As the offseason begins, the Fire enter rebuilding yet again. The Fire have now missed the playoffs in four straight seasons and six of the past seven.
Rodriguez believes moves made in 2016 have better positioned the club for this coming offseason.
“I know that we’re in a better position on the team’s salary budget than we’ve been in the past,” Rodriguez said. “I know that we’ve assembled a group of very hungry players that are either entering their prime or in their prime. We have two first-round picks. We have two DP slots. We have allocation money. So we’ve set the stage.”
There will be change within the Fire this offseason, but Rodriguez wouldn’t detail if it will be similar to last offseason when just 10 players from 2015 were retained, and two of those were shipped off midseason, or if it would be a more moderate rebuild. Rodriguez said that eight players currently have guaranteed contracts heading into 2017: defenders Johan Kappelhof, Michael Harrington and Joao Meira, midfielders John Goossens and Collin Fernandez and forwards Michael de Leeuw, David Accam and David Arshakyan. Meira’s contract initially had a club option for 2017, but met a clause that guaranteed the contract for next year.
The first date to know for this offseason is Dec. 13, when the expansion draft for Minnesota and Atlanta will take place. Before then, the Fire will have to announce which contract options they will pick up and which they will decline as well as which players they will protect for the expansion draft. After that, most of the moves will likely happen in January, when the international transfer window opens and when the MLS SuperDraft takes place.
“I know already that the first expectation is January and what will happen in January and everyone is pointing to January,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll just repeat it again, for me it’s about getting it right, not getting it fast. It’s about assembling a team that we believe can build and yield a championship program, one that’s sustainable. Today, is the first official day that we’ve begun work on 2017 although we laid groundwork and have been eyeing for this.”