Exclusive Hot Time In Old Town Conversation with Chicago Fire President of Soccer Operations Javier Leon: Part 2

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 04: Members of the Chicago Fire celebrate the game-wining goal by Austin Berry #22 against Toronto FC during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 4, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated Toronto FC 2-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

About a week ago, Chicago Fire Director of Communications Brendan Hannan contacted Hot Time In Old Town to have an open conversation with Javier Leon, who is the Managing Director of Andell Sports Group and President of Soccer Operations for the Chicago Fire. It's not every day that the Fire Front Office reaches out to us over here at HTIOT, so we definitely didn't want to pass up this opportunity. Tweed Thornton, Ryan Sealock and myself joined Javier on a conference for a casual conversation that lasted for over an hour and covered a wide range of topics regarding the Fire.

Since this was such a long conversation, we decided to post the conversation in two parts. Ryan had Part 1 up earlier this week. In Part 1 (which can be found here), Javier talks about player acquisition, how the Front Office goes about acquiring players and the organization's long term goals. In Part 2 below, Javier talks about the history of the Fire since Andrew Hauptman acquired the team, the recent departure of a few players, the recent acquisition of a few new players and youth development.

On the progress of the Fire since Andrew Hauptman acquired the team...

When Andrew first acquired the team, I think that we had three very successful years. Unfortunately, they did not result in a championship, but we were pretty close. Three finals - two Eastern Conference finals and the final of the Superliga. The last year that Cuauhtemoc [Blanco] was with us was particularly painful because we knew it was going to come to an end and he was going to go back to Mexico. To make it to the final game on our home field and lose in penalty kicks to Real Salt Lake, who eventually won the cup, and then to lose in our home field the final to Tigres of the Superliga tournament, it was very painful. That then resulted in a restructuring of the team. There were a number of players that were reaching a time when they were going to be moving forward. Some were retiring, others were beginning to think of moving elsewhere. That lead us to the era of Carlos de los Cobos.

On the Carlos de los Cobos era…

In the end, I feel that [hiring de los Cobos] is one choice that we made which was a brave choice. We were trying to bring in new blood, in a different way, to the league. We certainly didn’t succeed. At the end of the Carlos de los Cobos’ first year, it was a particularly challenging time because I would equate us with an expansion team, without the benefits of being an expansion team. I remember at the start of 2011, the turnover was a significant number. I want to say that we had something like 18 new players in the team. We decided to also focus on bringing some young guys to start building something.

Then Frank takes over in the middle of the year. Honestly, I thought it was the right decision at the time. After not making some right decisions, specifically the year before. I think in the year before, we unfortunately, under Carlos, were not successful. We also made some bad decisions when we decided to bring in some of the players that we brought in. Specifically, I would say that the biggest one was Nery Castillo. This was a player that, when we signed him, everybody thought that it was a really good potential gamble. That there was a potentially big pay off and that he was worth it. Especially for a player that had been transferred, at one point, for 20 million euros. The reality is that we made mistakes. To Andrew’s credit, he was willing to live with us and learn from those and move forward.

On the Chicago Fire’s youth development program...

I think that you’re going to see more and more teams focusing on their youth development activities in MLS. Clearly, the league is very focused. We live in a country that is so big. More and more people are playing the game. I think that it is going to be a focus. We’re very excited, particularly about Victor [Pineda]. I think he’s been making tremendous progress. Frank told me, as early as a month ago, that he thinks we are going to see him play some minutes with the first team before the season is over. So he expects him to make some kind of contribution to the first team. I know he has been having a great camp with the national team.

As far as moving forward, one of the things that Guillermo [Petrei] has put together that I think is going to be very beneficial, again with Andrew’s support, is the relationship with Atlético Madrid. We hired a guy [Rafael Carmona] that is going to come in and work. He was in charge of the methodology for youth development at Atlético Madrid. After Barcelona, they are known for having one of the best youth development systems in Spain. He has lived all of the transformation in Spain. The benefit of him is that he wanted to move to the US because he is married to a woman from the US. He speaks fluent English. Oftentimes in the world of soccer, you go to South America and Spain and some of the guys don’t speak the language. As we saw with Carlos de los Cobos, that can be a real handicap. I think he is going to make a tremendous contribution in terms of helping us with Larry Sunderland and the people we have in place get better at not only developing but identifying young players.

What is interesting about Rafael...I’ll give you a sense of the interview that we had. Again, this is about having the ability to grow from within. We’re not saying Rafael is going to come in and change everything at the Fire. There are a lot of good things that Larry and the rest of the coaches have been doing with youth development. The reasons that we like this guy, Rafael: One is because he wanted to live in the US and he has roots in the US. Second, when I interviewed the guy, I said, ‘Rafael, I’ve got to tell you, today we can find fifty guys that want to do what you’re about to do. That want to come to a league that is taking off. That is really developing its youth development from scratch. They’re all going to have the books that you have, how this is done. The main thing that I need from the guy that we’re going to hire...we need a guy that is going to come in and understand what we do and how we do it. Not a guy that is going to come in and say that you are doing everything wrong. He’s going to be part of the solution. He’s going to take what we are doing already and we’re going to continue to find a better way together.’ I thought that the attitude he had was exactly that. I didn’t want to hire someone who would say, all of a sudden, that you have to change everything. When you do that, unfortunately, then you have someone who is trying to do what is being done somewhere else, right away. Maybe, sure, at some point we should end up like a Spanish team...but it’s going to take some time.

We also wanted to make sure that he kept his link at Atlético Madrid. So he’s going to continue to have a role, a minor role, with Atlético Madrid. So this is a joint hire between the Fire and Atlético Madrid. So that’s also a very powerful thing to have-a guy that is still linked to Atlético Madrid. One of the other things that he may do is some scouting, especially in Europe, given all of the resources and connections that he has.

On the club’s ability to draft well…

From 2011, I think that the turning point was Frank coming in. He had done a lot of the scouting of the players that we had selected from the draft and that we had brought in. We had a pretty good run towards the end of 2011 that had us feeling like ‘okay, maybe we’re getting back into a position where we can compete for a playoff spot.’ Then from there, eventually think of ourselves as championship contenders. At the start of 2012, we decided that we had a good base of players. We did a lot of scouting, eventually bringing in what I think was a really good draft. We haven’t done so badly during the season that we ever had the first five picks in the past couple years. I think we were number nine this year and were able to select Austin Berry. It was a great selection. One of the guys that made a critical contribution in that process is Guillermo Petrei. One of the things that we had never done before is a rigorous interview process of all the players that we ranked highly. It became clear that Austin was a guy that was ready to come in and ready to play. He had all of the right qualities to be a guy wearing the Fire badge. One of the other players that we have very high hopes for is Hunter Jumper. He had a good game against Aston Villa. You can see that there is a lot of quality with him as well. So when we look back at the drafts today, you see Sean Johnson, Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, and even before that, Patrick Nyarko...I think we have developed a nice base from that aspect.

On the recent additions of veterans to the squad...

One of the moves that I felt was a really good move for us was the signing of Arne Friedrich. I feel that both Arne and Pavel [Pardo] have something in common that I respect tremendously. These are two players that have been extremely successful in their careers. They’ve been successful financially, they’ve been successful on the field. They’ve won championships. In both cases, they came to Chicago to win. They came to Chicago to play. I think they set a tremendous example for our young guys. Clearly, they have also been tremendous contributors on the field.

On Puppo…

We had high expectations from Federico Puppo and Rafael Robayo. In the case of Federico, we had a young guy that was still developing and played for the national team. We felt he had some attributes that could give him a chance to develop with us. To be fair, it has been difficult going for him. Part of it was the league. We have a league that is very competitive in different ways than some of these guys are used to playing. Second, it takes time. At this point in time, we decided it was better for him, at his age, to continue to play on a regular basis. The opportunity came about when Defensor [Sporting] from Uruguay, the defending champions, decided that this was the forward they wanted to have to hopefully defend their title. So we decided to move in that direction.

On Robayo…

In the case of Rafael Robayo, we clearly had high expectations for him. He was the captain of a very well-known franchise in Colombia with Millonarios. So we felt that we would be bringing another guy with characteristics of leadership like Pavel [Pardo] and Logan Pause. Again, he had difficulty adapting to the league. To his credit, he worked hard, despite not being a starter. He was always willing to work hard in training. Sure, there were some comments when he was saying that he would rather play more. He made some comments about the league...but that’s understandable. This is a guy that had a huge following on Twitter. I’m sure there were a lot of people who were calling him and telling him, ‘why is it that you’re not playing or are you happy playing for ten minutes?’ With him, we had a very good relationship. I think he is going to continue being an ambassador for us in Colombia. Mainly it is because we try to treat all of these guys with respect. We are very upfront with them and are not playing games. One of the things that Andrew is very focused on telling us, and I agree 100%, is this idea of transparency and being really honest with these guys. In the case of Rafael, the club that he used to play for had a pretty bad season last season without him. On top of it, their main city rival, Santa Fe, ended up winning the championship. Santa Fe had not won the championship in 34 years. Now Millonarios has not won the championship in 29 years. So there was a lot of pressure for the club to bring back Rafael. After sitting down with him, it was not an easy decision for us because we thought that he could potentially continue to develop. It was not easy for him because he loves the city. His family was having a great time and he felt very good about things. We have now parted ways in a very positive way. I think we have a very good guy in Colombia speaking highly about our club despite not having the sort of season that he would have liked.

On bringing in Sherjill MacDonald…

...we had the opportunity to bring Sherjill MacDonald as a forward. We felt pretty good about him, mainly because we had done a lot of scouting. This is a player that Frank and the team had looked at in detail. We were interested in signing him before the start of the season. But we were not able to reach an agreement with the club. Therefore, we were not able to sign him. The deadline came through and passed. We continued to stay in touch and follow his progress. We checked with a lot of people who had played with him. Including a guy like Sacha Kljestan, who had played and competed with him on a regular basis and who obviously knows our league pretty well. In the end, we were able to come to an agreement to sign him during this window. We are feeling pretty good about him, and that our attack will improve with him.

On Grazzini…

We truly did not anticipate the situation with Sebastian Grazzini. We clearly, as I said many times and told him, we had sent the signal early on. I think around March of this year, we said to him that our intent was to pick up his option. So that he could be here for us until the end of the year. Then, at the end of the year, we will think about the following year. That was the plan.

Unfortunately, he came to us before we had to do anything officially with MLS. This was about a month before the actual trigger date. He essentially said to us that he would like us not to pick up his option at this moment. There were a couple of things. One was the issue that he felt that there were some discrepancy between how he understood the contract and what his agent had told him. We basically told him, as far as the contract is concerned, this is a contract that was put to us. We didn’t write up the contract. This was your people coming to us and saying that this is how we would like to structure the deal for Sebastian. He agreed, but said he was still disappointed with his guys. The second thing was that he had a family thing. A very close family situation. I don’t want to comment too much on it because we agreed that we would keep this confidential because it is his personal life. He really needed to go back to Argentina. So he ends up going back to Argentina. We picked up the option because we wanted him to stay.

Now that he has gone back, he has been there at least a month. From the team perspective, Frank and this group have moved on. They understand that the guy has personal issues, but we have a team. We have other guys that may have issues too, but obviously are committed to the badge, and they are here and not going anywhere. At this point in time, I think that they feel that we are moving forward. Technically speaking, he could still come back, but at this point in time he has not played for a month. I think he is still dealing with his family issues. There hasn’t been interest from him in terms of playing for any teams in Argentina. So there is a possibility that he may decide not to play from now until the end of the season. So that’s where we are with him.

On additional player moves…

I’m not going to try to say that we anticipated the Grazzini situation, but I will tell you, in a good way, that we were a bit concerned about his ability, in this league that is pretty physical, to stay healthy. So when we brought in Alex to train during our preseason, we really wanted to sign Alex at that time. We wanted to have some backup for Sebastian. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to sign him because of the team that he was playing for. So we were not able to sign him until this window. As a result of it, we ended up also bringing Chris Rolfe because we thought that he could also play that role. Clearly, Chris and Alex are different players, even though they can play the same position. They are also pretty different from Sebastian-there are some similarities and differences. We gain in some aspects and lose in some others.

And that concludes our conversation with Javier Leon. We here at Hot Time In Old Town would like to thank Javier for taking the time to speak with us and Brendan Hannan for reaching out to us and arranging the meeting.

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