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What might the Fire look like under Wicky and Heitz?

We look for clues from their past at FC Basel

New Chicago Fire head coach Raphael Wicky
Photo by Maddie Meyer - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

After he was hired, new Chicago Fire sporting director Georg Heitz was clear about what he looks for in a player.

“Mentality is for me a very important thing,” Heitz said on the Fire’s website. “Speed is important, nowadays especially. We have to find players that fit our philosophy.”

That last word—philosophy—came up again in Heitz’s opening remarks.

“We need a good philosophy,” Heitz said. “We need stability, beginning from the owner and also the senior management, the coaching staff. Stability is really crucial in this business.”

So what is that philosophy? As the club is no doubt busy trying to fill out the roster for the 2020 season, what kind of players might Heitz and new head coach Raphael Wicky want to find? What could the Fire look like on the pitch come March?

We looked for clues from a couple of recent Wicky teams—his USA U-17s from 2019’s run-up to the World Cup, and his 2017-18 FC Basel club that made a run to the Champions League knockout stage.

Wicky’s Basel generally used a 3-4-3 formation in the Champions League group stage matches, switching only slightly to a 3-4-2-1 in the two knockout legs against Manchester City. So, might we see the Fire using three at the back next season?

A few more things jump out. Basel never once held a possession advantage during that Champions League campaign. Sure, there’s no way you’d expect Basel to out-possess a Pep Guardiola team (City controlled possession 74-26 and 78-22 in the two legs), but even in a 5-0 Basel win over Benfica in the group stage, Benfica had 58% possession—in a game where the Portuguese team was down a man for 30 minutes due to a red card.

While Basel was usually outshot in those matches, Wicky’s side was generally much more efficient in front of goal—something the Fire struggled with mightily last season. In that 5-0 win over Benfica, Basel had just eight shots on target. The 2019 Fire were third in expected goals in all of MLS. If last year’s roster had been even somewhat less wasteful in front of goal, they would have easily made the MLS Playoffs. Obviously 2020 will see a very different Fire roster, but maybe it’s one that will be more efficient in that department.

Basel was also resilient in the Champions League that season. After losing their opener to Manchester United 3-0 in Switzerland, they beat the Red Devils 1-0 in Manchester. And after getting blown out 4-0 by City in the opening leg of the knockout stage, Basel actually won the second leg 2-1, albeit against a lesser city side.

In U-17 World Cup Qualifying, Wicky’s USA tended to use a 4-2-3-1. While they lost the final to Mexico 2-1 after an extra time goal, the US U-17s rolled through most of the other games, playing a free-flowing style that was very encouraging to watch. In the only game where they struggled—a 3-2 win over Canada in the opener, the US was actually down 2-0 at the half, and they scored three quick goals to start the second half. Was it due to something Wicky did or said at halftime?

However, the U-17s got steamrolled when they got to Brazil—losing 4-1 to Senegal, drawing with Japan 0-0, and losing 4-0 to the Dutch. They looked like a completely different team in that tournament. The players seemed confused and wildly out of position at times, but it may not have been Wicky’s fault. A lot of US observers say it was more likely due to USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter forcing his preferred style on the youth team after qualifying.

If Wicky and Heitz get to keep their jobs long term, what might we expect? Under Heitz, FC Basel had huge success identifying and nurturing young stars, and selling them on for big profits. Some of those stars, like Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, came up through the Basel academy, which is something Heitz would like to improve here.

“We have to invest in the academy,” Heitz said. “This is clear, because clubs from time to time tend to forget about that. And then, we also need space in the roaster. We need space for our own young talents. I’m more than happy if we can make transfers from our own academy to our first team.”

But, after a decade that didn’t see much success, Fire fans may not be feeling very patient—unless there’s a clear rebuilding plan.

Heitz knows that. He told the club website that his new head coach has an important job in making sure everyone understands that plan.

“We need someone who is strong in communication, within the team, but also towards the fans.”