After a promising start, the Chicago Fire are on a seven-game winless run. We’ve seen this before; the previous two seasons under the Georg Heitz regime quickly turned sour, and the Men in Red suffered a pair of 22nd place finishes out of 26 and 27 teams in 2020 and 2021 respectively. As mentioned previously, the third season of Heitz’s project isn’t going anywhere at the moment. The Sporting Director’s contract is set to run out at the end of the year, which begs the question: should Heitz get another shot? Let’s take a closer look back at what he’s done over the last three seasons.
Georg Heitz arrived in Chicago in December of 2019 and was tasked with building a roster to compete in MLS as the Fire returned to Soldier Field amidst a rebrand. His first act was to hire his compatriot Rafael Wicky as head coach. Wicky’s resumé was not the most inspiring: it consisted of being the coach who oversaw the end of FC Basel’s dominance of the Swiss top flight, and a failure to win a single game in the U-17 World Cup with a U.S. team containing the likes of Gio Reyna, Ricardo Pepi, Gianluca Busio, and Joe Scally.
Failure to get the best out of his players would be a familiar staple of Wicky’s 21 months in charge. The Swiss regime received significant backing from the owner, Joe Mansueto, who has been happy to invest in all aspects of the club since taking over earlier in 2019. Mansueto’s arrival has been great for the club, and he has been among the most innovative owners in the league; that hasn’t been reflected on the field yet, though.
The Fire missed out on their initial transfer targets. Talks were held with some really big names, but no deal could get over the line. As the MLS season quickly approached, three Designated Players were picked up: Robert Berić, Ignacio Aliseda, and Gastón Giménez. Berić and Giménez both earned upwards of 2 million dollars annually, while Aliseda was paid $600,000 in base salary. The Fire parted ways with close to $5 million for the arrival of Giménez, while Aliseda cost most than $3 million. Apart from Berić, who had a decent first season, none of those three even came close to matching the production expected of a DP in MLS during the first two years back at Soldier Field.
The top end of the roster in 2021 was the same bad core as the previous year, and the rest of it was poorly managed. The MLSPA salary guide in 2021 revealed that several players were overpaid. The most notable was Francisco Calvo, who was a negative influence on and off the field but pulled in nearly $1 million annually. Calvo had his contract renewed after the 2020 season, and he was the fourth-highest earner at the club.
Players like Jhon Espinoza, Carlos Terán, and Stanislav Ivanov were signed to deals to fill out the roster that cost more than their contributions to the team were worth, as all Espinoza failed to win a starting job while Terán and Ivanov constantly struggled with injuries. Boris Sekulić has been a good, reliable player, but he is on over $600,000 annually, which is incredibly high for a fullback, especially one typically not viewed among the best in the league.
Because the middle of the roster cost so much, the depth had to be made up of homegrown signings. While the likes of Javier Casas, Chris Brady, and Andre Reynolds II are good options for the future, they really can’t make any contribution yet at the pro level. Of the 11 homegrowns on the roster, only Gaga Slonina, Mauricio Pineda, and Brian Gutiérrez have made contributions to the first team. That number doesn’t include Nick Slonina, who was signed ahead of the 2020 season but left having never played a minute. It does include Allan Rodríguez and Alex Monis, who were also signed prematurely; Rodríguez hardly even plays for the Fire’s second team, while Monis has only received 19 career minutes in MLS.
The reinforcements brought in in 2021 from the outside have also all been big disappointments. Stanislav Ivanov was acquired on a TAM deal, and he has struggled with fitness and production since arriving. Carlos Terán has also been constantly injured, and not reliable at all. The addition of Chinonso Offor was a gamble, but it has not paid off; the Nigerian scored only one goal in 2021 despite playing in all 34 games.
The outgoing moves haven’t been any better. Djordje Mihailovic came up through the academy and was signed as a homegrown at 18, and was a fixture in the first team from 2017 to 2020. After the 2020 season, the contract offer put on the table was not enough to get him to stay; he asked for a trade, wound up at Montréal for barely $1 million in GAM, and is now the MVP frontrunner, MLS assist king, and firmly in the USMNT picture heading into the World Cup.
Another player who was dramatically undervalued was Przemysław Frankowski. The Pole will also likely go to the World Cup in Qatar but was shipped to Lens for only $2.5 million. Since arriving in France, he has 5 goals and 5 assists, helping Lens compete for a spot in Europe as well as outscoring Messi in the league.
As for this season, It’s looking to be another year of disappointments in the transfer department. Gastón Giménez had his DP contract renewed through the end of 2023, despite not playing at the required level to earn that designation across his first two years in MLS. Kacper Przybyłko was brought in on a $1.25 million GAM trade from Philadelphia and while he was prolific there, simply doesn’t seem to be a fit for the way that Hendrickson wants to play in Chicago, and has been a huge disappointment for that reason. This year’s group of homegrowns aren’t looking ready for 2022 either. Victor Bezerra has yet to show that he can make an impact at the pro level, and Sergio Oregel is still probably a year off being a contributor.
The Fire’s biggest deal of the offseason was the acquisition of Xherdan Shaqiri in a blockbuster $7.7 million transfer from Olympique Lyonnais. He has struggled with injuries and form since arriving in Chicago and has been extremely underwhelming considering he is among the highest-paid players in the entire league. Neither Przybyłko nor Shaqiri have lived up to their price tag. The one transfer that has seemed to work is center back Rafael Czichos, who arrived from FC Köln in Germany.
It's hard to find too many success stories since the arrival of Heitz. The only recruits from the past three seasons that stand out as positives are Czichos, Boris Sekulić, and perhaps Fede Navarro and Luka Stojanović.
The Fire have spent $35 million on transfer fees alone in that time — among the highest in the league — with not great results. By comparison, between 2015 and 2019, only $7 million were spent on transfers by Nelson Rodríguez and Veljko Paunović. We’ll have to wait for the MLSPA to release the 2022 salaries to know exactly how much is being spent on the roster as a whole; that should come out in the coming weeks. Though the precise numbers are not known yet, it seems that the Fire have spent around $100 million on salaries during the Heitz era and have not made the playoffs once.
Heitz does deserve credit for his involvement in Mansueto’s purchase of Swiss club FC Lugano; long-term, the Fire will certainly benefit from having that sister club across the Atlantic. But in terms of the roster and product on the field, the Fire are suffering from the lack of an identity and vision, which has resulted in the 24th highest attendance in the league (in 2021). Heitz has also locked many players into long-term contracts, giving the organization little room to maneuver.
In leaving Basel and taking up the Fire gig, Heitz stepped out of his comfort zone. In his first season, his lack of MLS experience showed in the weak roster build, but that can be understandable; many new GMs have that learning curve. In his second and third season roster builds, Heitz showed that he hasn’t really learned from the mistakes he made in his first year. To fulfill his ambitions, Joe Mansueto may hold his technical staff to a higher standard.
As 2022 progresses, if the Fire don’t turn things around, Georg Heitz may start to get a little bit uncomfortable as his contract begins to run down. Quite simply, he has been a free-spender who has not gotten any results on or off the field.
Players have come and gone. Coaches have come and gone. So who is next?