Georg Heitz is coming up on his one year anniversary as sporting director of the Chicago Fire. He was hired last December to try to turn around a team that has struggled for most of the last decade, and he was faced with the task of trying to plug holes in a nearly empty roster at a frantic pace.
With a year of experience in MLS under his belt, he looked back today at the Fire’s unsuccessful 2020, and he discussed what he wants to do going forward to fix things. Here are five key takeaways from his news conference today:
There will be more signings
Heitz said the Fire are looking to strengthen the roster with “two or three more players.” He didn’t say specifically which positions, out of fear it will hurt his bargaining power, but it’s clear the Fire are looking for help both defensively and in the attack. He also said the team wants competition at every position.
It doesn’t look like the Fire are signing another Designated Player, though
Many fans have floated the idea the Fire can buy down Ignacio Aliseda’s contract, allowing the club to sign another star designated player. Heitz said it isn’t happening.
“As far as I see it, until now there is no way to buy him down, which is also not our intention....every team has one or two or three outstanding players, but that doesn’t mean this must be a designated player,” he said.
International slots aren’t the problem you think they are
With the signing of Chinonso Offor, the Fire are well over their allotment of eight international slots. But, Heitz said seven players are close to receiving their U.S. Green Cards, meaning they’ll eventually qualify as domestic players, “which gives us a certain flexibility regarding international slots,” he said.
Heitz clarified recent roster moves at the forward position
Heitz said CJ Sapong wasn’t offered a new contract for two key reasons: his age, and his salary. He said they want to lower the average age of the team, and they want to free up money under the salary cap.
“We told him weeks ago, we wanted to be honest because he deserved that, we told him that we would not provide him with a new contract,” Heitz said. “It’s got nothing to do with anything else. He will always have my full respect, and he’s such a great person.”
It’s unclear how much new forward signing Chinonso Offor will be making, but at 20, he’s definitely a lot younger than Sapong, who will soon be 32.
“Offor is a young striker,” Heitz said. “He is a tall striker. Nevertheless, he has a certain speed. One thing that we will need to give him is time, because he comes from a small league. The Latvian league is a small league. But we consider him and our scouting department consider him a very interesting option.”
Heitz also talked about the decision to extend forward Elliot Collier’s contract. Collier would often appear as a late sub when the team was looking for a goal. Despite amassing an xG of 2.2, Collier failed to find the back of the net in 2020.
“We see quite a lot of potential in Elliot... but he’ll have to improve his statistics, that’s clear,” Heitz said.
Heitz thinks continuity will help, even for a group that only won five games in 2020
The Fire signed 18 new players in 2020, and Heitz said the team didn’t get enough time to jell.
“We absolutely will have a focus on continuity, because that’s one thing we think we lacked due to what we did last winter,” he said.
Head coach Raphael Wicky said all season in order to consistently win matches, the team needed to finish more chances, and stop making defensive mistakes. The finishing did seem to improve for many of the players throughout the season, especially Robert Berić, who finished with a team-high 12 goals. But defensive communication errors continued to plague the team, especially late in matches, and on set pieces.
Needing a win in the final match against NYCFC to make the playoffs, the attack delivered three goals, but flat, careless defending meant the team conceded four. Heitz feels that game was an outlier, saying the players were “clearly not ready” for the match, were not the better team, and “were a bit tired.”
“I think our back line is better than what they showed against New York City,” Heitz said. “This is really not what they expect from themselves, or what we expect from them. This was simply not good enough. I think we should not take this last game as a benchmark.”
FBref rates the Fire at the top of the Eastern Conference in expected goals (xG) at 38.9, meaning Heitz may be right, the attack may continue to improve just by playing together more. Offor looks promising, and Luka Stojanovic will be back next season after missing most of 2020 with an injury.
Defensively, there isn’t as much reason to be hopeful, but there is some. New signing Carlos Terán figures to be a bigger part of the backline in 2021, and Heitz said more help is on the way. Mauricio Pineda will be another year older and stronger, and Jonathan Bornstein, who was solid and provided the team much-needed veteran leadership, is also slated to be back.
Heitz is right that another year together should help some. Will it be enough to finally make the Fire a winner? We’ll see.