Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez began his tenure a year ago committed to a three-year plan he believed would result in moving the struggling franchise in a new direction.
But after the Fire finished the season as Major League Soccer’s worst-performing team (7-17-10, 31 points), Rodriguez was left with a last-place finishing he didn’t see coming. Rodriguez also discovered that making the “tangible progress” he expected in Year 1 wasn’t nearly as easy as he anticipated.
But, Rodriguez refuses to consider the season a total loss.
“I think one big thing that changed over the course of our eight or nine months with the group is that we learned to compete,” Rodriguez said this week. “What we didn’t learn was how to win.”
The Fire had too many self-inflicted wounds and often allowed repeated mistakes to become costly. Although the Fire’s youth sometimes contributed to a lack of success, Rodriguez maintains that the overall quality of play was simply not good enough.
The Fire will start next season with eight players under guaranteed contract. After just 10 players were brought back from a 2015 team that managed 30 points with eight wins, Rodriguez admitted that even more change has to be part of the formula moving forward.
Rodriguez said first-year coach Veljko Paunovic and his staff did a “very, very good job”. But Rodriguez insisted that Paunovic, like team owner Andrew Hauptman, was not happy with the season’s results and would continue to be a pivotal part of the rebuilding process.
“We came in together and they’ll either drag us out on our backs or they’ll maybe one day lift us on their shoulders,” Rodriguez said.
The Fire will build around a base that includes forwards Michael de Leeuw, team MVP David Accam and David Arshakyan, midfielders Collin Fernandez and John Goossens and defenders Michael Harrington, defensive player of the year Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira.
Rodriguez declined to specify whether his plan included another mass exodus, but said that comings and goings would contribute to moving beyond this season.
“To me, it’s about getting it right –not about getting it fast,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about assembling a team that we believe can build and yield a championship program – one that’s sustainable.”
Rodriguez enters the offseason looking to fill a few essential needs, including a potential captain and a dominant central midfielder that could help move the Fire closer to where Rodriguez envisions. While Rodriguez was satisfied with the additions he made to the Fire’s roster, he understands if he wants to take the franchise to the level he hopes to, new faces will become part of the plan while familiar faces won’t.
The Fire possess two first-round draft picks and will have to make roster decisions before the MLS expansion draft takes place on Dec. 13. But as the new year approaches, Rodriguez has targeted the first five games of next season as being an essential measuring stick toward determining what more needs to be done.
“It’s a puzzle and I know what the (puzzle) box top looks like,” Rodriguez said. “We’re trying to put the pieces together.”
Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.