Can I say, at the outset, that everything which follows is absolute speculation? (There, I guess I've just done that.) I've got no one on the inside. I am not privileged to the internal workings of the Chicago Fire, or MLS. I am just a person who is trying to make sense of some facts (and some rumors) about the current state of the club which, on their surface, don't seem to hang too well together.
Money doesn't buy CF97 much
The Fire assure us they're well-funded - every successive leadership group, from Franks Klopas and Yallop to the Nelson Rodriguez ExperienceTM, has answered questions about the willingness of Andell Holdings to spend money with great dollops of enthusiastic hyperbole. Yallop, in particular, talked again and again about the "pretty big number" he had available for payroll and player acquisition. But in the areas of the club that speak to long-term investment, there's precious little.
Consider the PrivateBank Fire Pitch, a foothold for the Men in Red on the lucrative North Side - or so we thought. But simple searches of public documents demonstrate that the Fire Pitch (so-called) is a separate venture between Andell and some movers and shakers in Chicago real estate. So separate, in fact, that the few times the Fire used the facility under Frank Yallop, they were billed for the time. This, despite the fact the PBFP contains none of the basics of a real training facility - there is no team locker room. There is no film or media room. There is no physical therapy facility. It is a highly lucrative bit of rent-seeking on some prime North Side real estate, and it's Fire branded, but its benefits to the actual football club are difficult to elucidate at the moment.
Or look to the truly weird situation around CF97's USL ties. The mandate to either found a USL reserve side, or affiliate with an existing USL club, is almost four years old - and yet the Fire's plans on this front remain completely unresolved. A series of 11th-hour deals has enabled the Men in Red to loan players to Saint Louis FC for the last two years, but the deal lacks any kind of player-development oversight. Nelson Rodriguez essentially kicked the can down the road his one time addressing the situation, saying it was something they were "going to have to take a look at."
These failures have real effects for the players in the organization. The lack of dedicated training facilities - as well as nickel-and-diming on medical staff - may have cost the Fire their relationship with 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee. Collin Fernandez lost more than a year of development while on loan limbo with teams who had no plan for his development.
National title? Time for an Academy reboot
Perhaps the greatest indignities are the ones I spoke of last time in this space, the ones heaped upon the undeserving heads of former coaches of the Fire Academy. Rodriguez took over right around the time that the Chicago Fire Academy U18s stormed through the USSDA playoffs and won a national title. The team was remarkable not only for its talent but for its intelligence, as the staff encouraged the players to devise their own tactical approaches in an echo of the old Liverpool FC ‘boot room' tradition.
Shortly after that triumph was the infamous ‘Full Nelson' Academy practice, where he contradicted the staff and generally behaved poorly. And shortly after that, Larry Sunderland announced that, gee, y'know, Portland's awesome, and then most of the academy staff found jobs elsewhere.
Weirdly, despite hiring the guy who used to run Paris Saint-Germain's academy, the Fire haven't had much luck recruiting players this season. It's almost like Chicago is a city of endless personal connections, a dense web of commitments and allegiances and sympathies, and the club had torn at that web mindlessly, creating a dead zone of anti-commitment around itself. Or something. Like I said, weird.
No investment, no roots: The paranoid mind looks for connection
Of course I'm paranoid. Do you read the news? Paranoia is a rational response to our times. And the more I peer into the Fire's inscrutable management decisions, the more I'm led to believe there's a simple explanation: Andrew Hauptman and Andell Holdings are preparing the Chicago Fire for a sale, move and rebrand.
Why trade Harry Shipp, when he fills a need on the roster, is a lifelong supporter, and doesn't cost much? Because local ties are a detriment to the plan, if the plan is ‘shrink-wrap this club for shipment.' They're in Mergers & Acquisitions mode. Ties to the community - organic connections to a real place and time - are a PR burden, a legacy cost. Best to be done with them as expeditiously as possible, goes the thinking.
Paranoia can even turn the Fire's nascent pursuit of Schweinsteiger into an argument for the prospect. Is the former captain of Die Mannschaft just the final enticing come-on to a potential investor? It's not hard to imagine such a roster pitched as 'a turnkey operation ready to exceed expectations' or some other happy delusion.
We can't really know. They won't really tell us. At this point, Nelson Rodriguez has said enough provably untrue things to qualify for mistrust. And if my speculation has any truth to it, Fire Nation would be pure suckers to believe much else The Great Man says going forward.