You can read part one of our interview with Mansueto, where he talks about the failure of the “Fire Crown” logo here.
Joe Mansueto didn’t play soccer growing up. The sport really wasn’t on his radar until much later in life, when he was a dad on the sidelines of his kids’ games.
“When your kids start playing, it kind of becomes addictive,” the Chicago Fire owner tells Hot Time. “You love watching your kids, you start loving the sport, you start watching it professionally on television, that takes it to another level.
“I just think soccer has a great future,” Mansueto continues. “I think, unlike a lot of the other sports, which could be a three, four hour investment of time, soccer is 90-minutes of non-stop action. It’s a blast. To watch a game you’re on the edge of your seat the whole game, the time goes by, like that. And it’s a great sporting experience.”
Mansueto says that love of the game, which he found through his kids, is one of the biggest reasons he decided to step up and buy the Chicago Fire outright in 2019.
And there’s one other reason, too.
“I think Chicago deserves a world caliber soccer team,” he says. “I think the city would love it. I think it’ll add to the cultural richness of our city. So it’s to me a missing element of a great city is having an accessible championship caliber soccer team.”
The NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars have been on the brink of a championship for the last few seasons, but on the men’s side, the Fire haven’t truly been a force since the early days of MLS, when soccer wasn’t nearly as widespread in the United States as it is now.
Cities like Seattle, Portland and Atlanta have thriving, popular, winning MLS clubs in packed stadiums, and Mansueto says there’s no reason the Fire can’t win over Chicago, too.
“I absolutely share that vision,” Mansueto says. “I mean, that’s part of the reason I bought in the club. The potential for the Chicago Fire in this market is enormous. We should be like Seattle, Atlanta, Portland—we’re a bigger city than those cities. And, we’ve got the venue now in Soldier Field.”
Mansueto granting interviews to outlets like Hot Time, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times— as well as his willingness to dump the unpopular current logo—have both gone a long way toward repairing the club’s fractured relationship with longtime fans. But, he knows as well as anyone those fans won’t truly be happy until the team is winning. Five wins and a missed playoff appearance in 2020 won’t cut it, but Mansueto believes the pieces are in place to help the club win long-term.
He’s not a Jerry Jones-type owner, to be sure. Mansueto believes in finding the right people, supporting them where they need it, and then leaving them alone to do their jobs.
“I’m very happy with the direction of the club,” he says. “I think we’ve got the right people in the right seats. And we are headed in the right direction, if you’re talking about the first team on the sporting side, (Fire Sporting Director) Georg (Heitz), I think is just a world caliber talent in terms of identifying and developing soccer talent. We’ve put together a scouting organization we’re looking around the world, Bulgaria, Latvia, Colombia—these guys are leaving no stone unturned.”
Just this off season, the Fire have signed Chinonso Offor, a 20-year-old Nigerian forward playing in Latvia, Jhon Espinoza, a 21-year-old defender from Ecuador, and Stanislav Ivanov, a 21-year-old Bulgarian winger. Another potential star, a giant, 17-year-old forward named Jhon Jáder Durán, will join the team in 2022 after he turns 18.
That’s coupled with last year’s signings of Ignacio Aliseda, Miguel Navarro and Carlos Terán, who are all under 23, as well. Heitz’s plan is to find these guys, nurture them, and hope that most of them pan out.
It’s a departure from signing aging superstars like Bastian Schweinsteiger, who left the Fire after the 2019 season.
“You can spend a lot to get one or two proven players, or you could spend it more broadly and find some up and coming talent, develop that talent,” Mansueto says. “That’s the path we’re going down, and I think it’s exciting to look for that young talent. It’s a big world, there’s a lot of soccer talent out there.
“Perhaps it’s a little riskier. Because you have to develop the talent, you know you can have a promising 18-year-old, and they don’t always pan out. But I think if you put together a portfolio of these under the oversight of Georg and Sebastian (Pelzer), I think on average we’re gonna do pretty well. And it doesn’t mean to say that everyone will be a hit. But I think the hits will outweigh the misses.”
To be fair, established superstars sometimes fail in MLS, as well. Mexican superstar Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scored just one goal last season for the LA Galaxy.
“You can have a splashy headline, and we’ve seen them in the league where there’s splashy headlines, and even the older, experienced player doesn’t pan out,” Mansueto says. “Even the splashy headline doesn’t guarantee success, because the player you’re acquiring at 33 is not the same player he was at 23.”
If the youth movement strategy is successful, some of these guys will want to leave for bigger clubs in Europe. It means the Fire will start to look like Heitz’s old club, FC Basel, which developed and sold players like Mohamed Salah, Ivan Rakitic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. Mansueto understands that.
“I think we’d want to work with the player and what their aspirations are,” he says. “If somebody is super talented, and they want to go to Europe, that’s their goal, you don’t want to force a player to be at a club if they want to be somewhere else. And so I think we could support that vision.
“At the same time, as the Fire gets to be better known, more popular in Chicago, we start winning championships, players will want to be here. And so we want to make this as an attractive destination as possible.”
The key, he says, is consistency. Have a clear vision, and fully support that vision.
“It’s like a restaurant. If you’re serving Chinese food one day, and French food the next day, you’re going to confuse a lot of people with what your identity is,” Mansueto says.