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“Our Fans Serve As Extra Sets Of Lungs”: One-On-One With Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez

We sit down with N-Rod to talk about 2017, offseason happenings, fan engagement, and The Chant

MLS: MLS All-Star-MLS WORKS Community Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor’s note: during this interview I mistakenly referred to the device set off in the Harlem End in October as a flare. It was, in fact, a smoke bomb. We regret the error.]

In late October I wrote an editorial about fan misbehavior and how the club responds to it. A fan had been ejected from Toyota Park for setting off a flare and, according to some accounts, handed a year-long ban. That incident stuck with me because I had previously been yelling about Fire fans doing The Chant, which had experienced a spike toward the end of the season. I felt that the club wasn’t doing enough to deal with homophobic chants while cracking down harshly on something that, to me and other members of the Fire fan community, is fairly innocuous.

I closed that article by addressing Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez directly and saying I’d be happy to sit down and talk with him about these issues. I’ll admit, I expected that call to go unanswered. I’m a small-time soccer blogger writing for a media outlet that hasn’t had a great relationship with the front office over the years. I assumed if it got noticed at all, it would be by a staffer on the communications team, who would roll their eyes and close the browser tab before carrying on with their day.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email from Mr. Rodriguez’ assistant a few days later asking for my availability.

Some scheduling snafus, a short-notice rescheduling due to a stomach flu (because of course I’d get sick right then), and a major holiday pushed the meeting to the end of November. But by and by, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in the Loop on a chilly early Tuesday morning and was soon joined by the general manager of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club.

We talked about the 2017 season, pyrotechnics, Monterrey Security, The Chant, and community outreach. He told me that while he’s proud of what the Fire achieved this season, there remains some unfinished business. He talked about his efforts to try and build a club culture where good enough isn’t good enough. And we talked about the fans— how they’re at the center of everything this club does, how they had a hand in the 2017 resurgence, the challenges of creating a more inclusive club, and what more needs to be done in 2018 and beyond.

Here is my interview with Nelson Rodriguez, lightly edited for clarity.


Hot Time In Old Town: So first things first, this was an amazing season! We signed Bastian Schweinsteiger, we signed Dax McCarty, we signed Nemanja Nikolic, we went on that big unbeaten run, we hosted the All-Star Game, and then we finished 3rd in a tough Eastern Conference. It’s been about a month since the season ended, you’ve had a little time to catch your breath and reflect. How do you feel about the 2017 season looking back on it now?

Nelson Rodriguez: I take a small measure of pride and happiness [knowing] that we gave the fans more than hope. We gave them some really good football for a while. There were really good moments for our fans, for our team, to enjoy. Overall I would say it’s a step. There’s still a lot of work to do and a long way to go, in terms of where we ultimately want to be as a club and as a team. So, unfinished business.

HTIOT: Speaking purely for myself and as a fan, the only thing I wanted for this season was to not finish last. I would’ve been happy with 9th!

NR: That’s a low bar!

HTIOT: Well I know these things take time.

NR: We finished last the year before, and that was bad enough.

HTIOT: So obviously, hindsight is 20/20, and I’m sure there are a number of things you could pick out that you wish had gone another way. But if you could zero in on one thing that you wish you could’ve done differently this season, what would it be?

NR: It’s a fair question but it’s a difficult one for me. And that’s partially due to the way I’m wired, which is... look, we’ve made mistakes, for sure, and we need to learn from those mistakes so we don’t repeat them. But it’s not in my nature to look back, it’s not in my nature to regret. I always just prefer to continue, to go forward. I think that there were things that we could do better, but I don’t know if it helps to say we’d do things differently. Because even in the mistakes we learned some things that were important in moving us toward where we want to be. So I prefer to think of it as our ability to overcome those mistakes, to learn from them, and continue to move forward toward the game model that we want, the club that we want. That’s how I prefer to look at it.

HTIOT: Also I’d imagine there was a lot that happened this season that was out of your control. Like injuries.

NR: I think our injuries this year were quite unlucky. Michael [de Leeuw]’s injury comes on a tackle. Bastian [Schweinsteiger]’s injury really first comes on the tackle he receives in Montreal that causes a red card, and he tries to compensate and continue to play, and that’s how he ends up pulling his quad for the first time. Djordie Mihailovic’s injury, it’s unfortunate.

HTIOT: How’s he doing, by the way?

NR: He’s doing very good, very very well with rehab. Michael is as well. Djordie has surgery about a week to ten days earlier than Michael, but they’re both doing well, Djordie’s doing extraordinarily well.

HTIOT: They’re both in good spirits?

NR: Fantastic. Which is a good question, because attitude is so important in recovery. They’ve both had a great attitude.

HTIOT: In broad terms what are your priorities for the club, on and off the pitch?

NR: On the field, we try to work in six-month increments. We also prefer to not be highly active in the summer [transfer] window. And I want to explain why. First, we spent from last March through August trying to find players of interest to us, that we then spent August-September-October-November going to see play live, in preparation for the January window. During the course of the year, we felt we needed to still improve our competition on the back line. We still feel like we could use a, what I would call a creative, dynamic attacking force. Everyone will call that a #10, it doesn’t have to be. [Ignacio] Piatti wears a #10 shirt, he doesn’t play like a #10, but he’s certainly that type of player. So, another creative force in attack. Now, those were our original [plans]. The injuries to Djordie and Michael caused a change in that, because now suddenly, we felt we were in a position of strength and now we’re down two players.

HTIOT: Yeah, central midfield was the best thing about the team for a long time, and now...

NR: So that changes things. We still need to improve competition on the back line, centerback and outside backs, we still need more depth. And we like competition, we like guys when they have to earn their spot on a weekly basis.

HTIOT: I’m sure the players prefer that too.

NR: Well, some players do and some players don’t. The players that don’t probably won’t last long in our environment, because of the environment that we’re looking to create. This will become public soon, but we did not pick up Richard Sanchez’ option. We’re negotiating with him. But goalkeeper will be a spot we continue to look at as well. So really, all the lines, the goalkeeper line, the back line, the midfield line, the forward line, we’re looking to improve on. It’s very difficult to actually add players as you go, and we have to understand that Djordie and Michael will come back in the summer, so I wouldn’t imagine we’d go out and get two forwards because then we’d have a glut. There’ll be a tricky balance that’s involved. The other thing that’s happening this offseason that’s different than last [season] is, we now have a lot of players that other teams want.

HTIOT: Yeah.

NR: And so, we field a lot of inquiries on players. No one has a no-trade clause. I don’t believe in no-trade clauses. And I believe that, and I say this all the time, if Wayne Gretzky can be traded, one of the greatest athletes in my generation, then anyone can be traded.

HTIOT: I think that’s probably a good philosophy, nobody’s “safe.”

NR: So, we’ll see what happens, we’ll see how we can improve our team, keeping in mind that again, we have a particular view for how we’d like to see the team evolve, and we’ll try to move closer in that direction.

HTIOT: During the last regular season home game, the 3-2 win over Philly, there was an incident where someone in the Harlem End set off a flare. And according to accounts from some Section 8 people, that person was immediately ejected from Toyota Park, and according to the same accounts that person later received a one year ban from the stadium. So first, can you confirm or deny the accounts as it was related to me?

NR: I can confirm that he was ejected, I don’t know if he received a ban but I’ll ask our operations people. This isn’t something that would normally be shared with me.

HTIOT: Sure.

NR: I can also confirm that for two people who were identified as using [homophobic] language and The Chant were also ejected. I can also confirm that at a previous game earlier in the year we had some fans who had initiated a fight within stadium grounds but outside the stadium, they were identified and they were banned. So, what I can say is, there are rules given to us by Major League Soccer that we are obliged to uphold, and that we support, such as the use of flares and their use without proper management. On the issue of The Chant, which crept in a little bit toward the end of the year, one of the things we found in some of the people we apprehended and ejected, those were fans who purchased Fire tickets as part of a package when they bought tickets to the club game between two Mexican teams. So they were not Section 8 supporters, although they were seated in Section 8.

HTIOT: Right.

NR: So we take those things seriously. We hold it as an ideal to be an inclusive club, inclusive for all kinds of fans and people, we want to be a club that serves its community, and we want that to be a pillar. I think our history has shown that we’ve been recognized internationally and nationally for our efforts in serving our community. And we’ll continue to ensure that those ideals are upheld.

HTIOT: Regarding the ban on pyrotechnics, and I think there’s some confusion among fans about where that policy comes from. Some think it’s internal, some think it’s a mandate from the Village of Bridgeview, and some think it comes from the league.

NR: So the league has its own rules and regulations, and then those are also subject to local ordinances, Fire Marshall decisions, and also a club can have its own policies. Club policies can’t contradict or contravene the league, they can only be stricter, if you will. And then obviously as we are a tenant [at Toyota Park], the Village trumps all in terms of what it permits to allow.

HTIOT: So you would say it’s a mix of all three when it comes to pyrotechnics?

NR: Well I don’t know that anything within the Village or our club is stricter or in contravention to the league’s rules, but those three factors exist in every stadium.

HTIOT: I know you said you’re not necessarily involved in those kind of operational decisions, but I wanted to-

NR: Well I wouldn’t say that, it’s just that I focus my time on the team.

HTIOT: Sure, yeah. But I was wondering if you could just sort of walk me through the decision-making process when a fan is identified for ejection. Can you tell me how that process goes?

NR: Well it could be office staff that identifies the individual that’s causing what’s called an “infraction.” It could be stadium security staff. Or it could be another fan who’s watching. And then depending on the severity the infraction we work to figure out what to do. When those fans who instigated the fight were identified, they were given the opportunity to [say], we didn’t do it we didn’t do it, whatever, and then we worked with the league office to issue the one year ban. Because that’s just behavior we cannot have.

HTIOT: Sure.

NR: It’s interesting, there’s a website called the Players’ Tribune, and Miguel Almirón just penned a letter.

HTIOT: I read that, yeah.

NR: So if you read that you saw that Almirón was surprised at fan reaction. He was surprised that, the first game of the year they played [the New York Red Bulls], they lose 2-1, and the fans are applauding the team. In Argentina, they’d be booing us, they’d be howling, they’d be throwing things at us, and here they’re still cheering us. And he was refreshed by, “this? This could be football? It could really be this party?”

HTIOT: “I can actually go to the grocery store after a loss?”

NR: So I think that’s very special, and I think we have to preserve that. And fans have to feel safe in those environments. And I’m very proud of Chicago sports fans in general and Fire fans in particular. Look, our fanbase has had great reason to boo teams off the park, especially prior to this year. But they didn’t. Our fans serve as extra sets of lungs. They really do. And you know, our players [benefited] from a virtuous cycle this year, where I believe our team played better, and I believe the fans responded and [pushed them on], and THEN I think the players heard that from the fans and played harder, and then the fans gave more, and so it became this virtuous cycle.

HTIOT: Positive feedback loop, yeah.

NR: When you have that abhorrent chant, or you have fan misbehavior, threatening or otherwise, I don’t see that as a protected right of the fan. I’ve always had this expression— and no pun intended— that it’s okay to fire fans. The price of buying a ticket does not give you the right to behave like that in any way. You can boo me, you can boo the team (though again I’m pleasantly surprised that it tends to be much more positive), but it does not give you the opportunity to be vulgar, obscene, profane, sexist, racist, in any way. It doesn’t give you the right to menace or threaten other fans.

HTIOT: Sure, yeah. I just want to touch back briefly on the pyro. I feel like there’s a perception among fans that some infractions from fans are punished more harshly than others, and that it doesn’t necessarily follow in terms of [infraction] severity. For Section 8 fans in particular, some have been advocating to ease restrictions on pyrotechnics anyway. Would you and/or the club be willing to sit down with Section 8 leadership and talk about this issue?

NR: I’m very surprised you’re raising this. In the past 8-10 months I believe I’ve had very good dialogue with [Section 8 Chairman] Scott Greene on a wide range of subjects. This has never been raised by Scott. He’s never raised that he feels there’s an unfair treatment of Section 8 supporters. The issue of pyrotechnics has never been raised with me. I want to be clear, that’s not to say it hasn’t been raised with the club, it may have been raised with [Atul Khosla] before he left. Maybe it was raised with [head of operations] Mike Ernst. I don’t know. But Scott has never raised it with me. And in fact there was a moment earlier this year where [Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic] and I asked Section 8 and Sector Latino to come in and we met with them and talked to them about. And first we wanted to say Thank You, because we think personally we thought we were treated well, we thought the fans were great, and were really driving the team. And we wanted to keep that going. And we just said, let us know if there’s anything we can do to help. There were a few things mentioned that we’ve tried to work on since then. But this issue that you’re suggesting, it’s never been raised. And I don’t mean to disqualify the issue, I’m just saying, it hasn’t come to me.

HTIOT: Sure.

NR: Look, we’ve ejected fans for disorderly conduct, for being drunk. They hadn’t been in Section 8. The fans that were banned for a year because they instigated a fight, they were not in Section 8. So, we want everyone to have a good time. And every paying customer has equal rights, so to speak, and also equal responsibilities.

HTIOT: I want to talk about Monterrey Security. They’ve come under increased scrutiny this year. They lost their license to operate in New York State, they had their contract with the Minnesota Vikings terminated this year. Can you talk to me about the club’s relationship with Monterrey and-

NR: They are hired by the Village and they’re managed by the Village. We did share with the Village some of the news that we also heard about Monterrey in other states, but that’s all we can do. So you’ll have to direct those questions to the Village of Bridgeview. We do not have a say in who’s hired. They get to make that decision.

HTIOT: Ok, that’s really good to know. I think there was some confusion among some fans I’ve talked about how those hiring decisions get made.

NR: Yeah, that’s a Village decision.

HTIOT: Ok, cool. So we talked about The Chant earlier, and you mentioned some of what the club has done to deal with it, including ejecting fans. Could you give me more detail about that?

NR: We have zero tolerance. So if you’re identified, you’ll be removed from the stadium. There’s no place for it. It’s not clever, it’s not witty, it’s just not acceptable. And it’s different than, you know, someone may use profanity but that could be an emotional reaction to a play, not that that’s great but look, I’m not Snow White either, right? But an emotional reaction that lasts a few seconds is different from an organized chant, an organized song. You know what they’re saying, you know what the meaning behind it is. So again, there’s no need for that. There’s no place for that in our sport, in any sport. And we took a very hard line, and we continue to support that hard line, because [The Chant], that’s not who we are as a club. We represent all of Chicago and all of it’s good citizens. So, something that’s homophobic or otherwise, it just can’t be condoned or allowed. And I think we’ve had great success with that. Other than truly, truly sporadic chants late in the year, we went over a year without it ever coming out, ever.

HTIOT: It seemed like it was gaining traction, then you gave that speech 15 months ago at Pride Night, then it scaled back dramatically. And I feel like the resurgence toward the end of this season, I think some of that’s from group packages like you said or from Groupon, but I also think there’s a dedicated group of regular fans that are really driving it.

NR: Again, if we find anyone organizing or using that, we’re going to remove them. Ban them if necessary. Because we will not have tolerance [for that]. It’s not who we are, it’s not who our fans are. A lot of people will say, freedom of speech, but there are limits to that.

HTIOT: Another thing I’ve heard from folks this season is that, those fans who were doing it toward the end of the season, they seemed to be more resistant to self-policing. Section 8 has gotten better about talking to other fans and saying, “hey, that’s not cool.”

NR: I agree with that.

HTIOT: And so, what was happening was that, these people would do the chant, and another fan would confront them about it and tell them to knock it off, and they would just keep doing it. Sometimes while, like, staring the other fan down.

NR: So in those moments, we need to do a better job of educating our fans. And encouraging them at that moment to text or contact stadium or team personnel so we can deal with it. Because it’s not their job to eject the fan. But it should be part of their responsibility or comfort to report those incidents.

HTIOT: Right, yeah.

NR: But I agree with you, I do think Section 8 and Sector Latino have done a very very good job of self-policing. I wouldn’t call it a resurgence, you’re allowed to call it as you see fit, but I have to agree that it seeped back in a little bit, which is why we had to eject those fans. And we have to continue to be vigilant about that.

HTIOT: Going forward, what will you be looking for from fans to tackle this issue next year? Is there anything specific you want from the fanbase?

NR: If I could ask, I would just make the same ask. If you see something or hear something that’s offensive or profane or sexist or just crosses the line, tell us. Tell us. We’re on your side and we want to fix this. And for sure, we may hear something, but you’re talking about 16000, 17000, 18000 fans, so we need a little bit of help. Now, imagine if we could add in security in Section 8, just out of the blue, they would start to feel threatened, not trusted by us. We’re trying to ensure that, we’re here to work with everybody. So I would say, if a fan feels [threatened], they could tell us, tell stadium personnel, and we’ll handle it.

HTIOT: Beyond addressing the chant, can you talk about what the club is doing to reach out to LGBTQ fans and if you think there are opportunities to expand that?

NR: For sure we need to expand our outreach to all fans, not just that segment and population. I think the fact that we try very hard to be inclusive is, well I’ll give you an example. At Pride Night two seasons ago, a fan saw me in the stands and came up to me and said, “you’re the general manager, right?” I said, “yes.” He said, “I’m completely offended by tonight. And I’m thinking of canceling my seasons tickets because of that.” And I said, “well listen, we’re an inclusive organization, and we’re going to always be that way. So if you don’t feel comfortable, then we’re probably not the right club for you. Because we’re not going to change.”

HTIOT: Ok.

NR: So as to your specific question, we participate in the annual Pride Parade. Is that enough? Probably not. But everything is a function of dollars, and you make a plan to market your product and market yourself. And you do that as well as you can. We need to revisit that. I think now is a good time for the club to internalize it a little bit more, which we’ll do this offseason. I think when we hire AK’s successor and we have a new chief business officer, that will give us another opportunity to look inward, seek the input of a fan council, cross-reference with fans and say, what are we doing well, what aren’t we doing well. If there’s a belief that we’re not doing sufficient outreach, then, ok. Maybe you’ll have a better idea than we will. We could say, “Let’s take out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune!” And you’ll say, “No! Exactly not the right thing!” So I think there’s an opportunity to learn from our fans and seek their input.

HTIOT: Sure.

NR: And there’s a line there, right? Input, not necessarily influence. But I think we can look to do that. But we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud of what we represent, we’re proud of who we play for, which is this great city and all of its fans.

HTIOT: I just want to say too, I realize I’m asking a lot of questions about The Chant and other LGBTQ issues. Some of this is because I cover the Fire for a media outlet, and I feel like getting those questions answered is important for journalistic reasons. But it’s also important for me personally, because I’m queer. And there have been times when I haven’t felt safe going to games. And so, this is something that’s relevant to me personally.

NR: So if, for example, you feel threatened, we have to know that. Because we can’t help you otherwise, or anyone who’s like you or sympathetic to people like you, we can’t help if we don’t know. So I would encourage personally to say, this is what occurred, this is where it occurred, this is how it occurred, we need to know those things to make sure that we’re providing a safe environment. And I’m proud of the league, I’m proud that Robbie Rogers chose to continue playing after he had a traumatic moment and stepped away from the game. But he came back, and he felt comfortable coming back in Major League Soccer.

HTIOT: Yeah, American soccer has its struggles with LGBTQ issues, but compared to England it’s this nice little island of progressive values.

NR: So yeah, we just encourage you to let us know.

HTIOT: Ok. So I think we’re almost done here. As you’re preparing for 2018 next year, would you say that the club is open to utilizing cloning technology in order to field a team made entirely of Nemanja Nikolics?

NR: Well, no. <laughs> I think that the most successful teams are ones that, ironic that I would say this about our competition, but that are diverse. That have diverse skillsets. I think the ultimate team is a Swiss army knife. It’s Batman’s utility belt. We need to rappel? We can rappel. We need a fire extinguisher? We have a fire extinguisher. We can do all of those things. So no, as much as I love Niko, an army of Nikos would be scary.

HTIOT: That is completely fair, I respect that.