At some point yesterday after the sun had gone down, I found myself in my car, sitting alone in a Menards parking lot. This sounds like a recipe for the beginning of the end of a middle aged man’s life, but I was actually quite happy for a couple reasons. First, I had just dropped my 11-year-old off at soccer training, and had grabbed food from a nearby taco truck. As a dad, getting to occasionally eat in peace is blissful. Second, I had just flipped on the Intercontinental Football Show. Tyler Terens and AW were basking in the glow of the Fire’s acquisition of Xherdan Shaqiri.
Sure, it had been rumored for weeks. I had even written two stories on the signing earlier in the day. But it all kind of hit me, sitting there at that suburban Menards location. The Chicago Fire did something really bold. Really good. Something that, hopefully, will mark a turning point.
We’ve been through a lot. Yesterday while the Fire were dominating social media, I thought back to the time when the old guard Fire admin wouldn’t even respond to basic questions from fans. When the comms department put out that ridiculous letter basically telling fans they didn’t matter and should quit complaining. We should just shut up, drive out to Bridgeview, spend our money, and choke on the wooden spoons.
But, really, the Big Shaq signing was kind of a culmination of a massive amount of mostly positive moves over the last couple seasons. Think about all that’s changed since Joe Mansueto took over as sole owner of the club: moving back to Soldier Field, major upgrades to the Bridgeview training facility for the players and the Academy, quickly recognizing we all hated the Crown logo and pledging to switch it, the new office downtown, the absolute, top-tier content team, a TV deal with WGN, hiring Terens, Tony Meola, and Arlo freaking White, all those green cards, hiring the best soccer crest designer in the U.S., Matt Wolff, to fix our logo issue (and the subsequent result (!), buying FC Lugano in Switzerland, replacing Nelson Rodriguez with Ishwara Glassman Chrein, a tasty beer partnership with Revolution, hiring Ezra Hendrickson, welcoming back former players like CJ Brown and Evan Whitfield, finally forming the club’s own lower division team, a best-in-MLS training facility and club headquarters in the works, red jerseys on the way back, and now a new superstar designated player in the fold.
It’s hard not to be optimistic, even when the product on the field is really the only thing that hasn’t improved. But, I’m optimistic there, too. Rafael Czichos is a stable, strong, quality upgrade over Francisco Calvo. We saw a glimpses last season, but I really think Federico Navarro is a beast of a No. 6. While Gastón Giménez looked disinterested at times last season, he can be a very strong player, and having Navarro behind him will push him up into his more natural No. 8 role. Kacper Przybylko is a proven MLS goal scorer, and will be a consistent upgrade over Robert Berić’s streakiness. And now, Przybylko will be even stronger with Shaqiri playing in behind him at the No. 10 role, which Hendrickson said yesterday will be the Swiss star’s position. Oh, and don’t forget about the rumors that Atlas’ Jairo Torres could be coming as a young designated player. Nothing to report there, except to say that could be a very fun move if it goes down.
After having such an incomplete roster a few weeks ago, the Fire now look like they’re on target to start the season with a team much stronger than last season. Georg Heitz and his team took a lot of heat for taking so long to sign a DP, but waiting a bit to sign Shaqiri proved much smarter than rushing to sign a guy like Berić, just to have a DP in place. To be fair, I don’t know if this Fire team is good enough just yet. It’s MLS, so it’s anybody’s guess. But for the first time, it feels like all those positive decisions off the field are starting to spill over to the on-field product, and it’s fun to see.
Glassman Chrein has a great line for fans she meets who question the club’s commitment: “We want to win, too.” Hopefully, in 2022, she gets her wish.