Fire behind schedule with no coach and small roster

With the March 1 opener approaching, the Fire are without a coach, they haven’t added the front-office executive they said they would in October and the roster is far from complete.

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Nelson Rodriguez and the Fire have plenty to do before the March 1 season opener in Seattle.

Chicago Fire FC

The Fire can open training camp Jan. 18. Their season begins March 1 at MLS Cup champion Seattle, and the much-ballyhooed return to Soldier Field is March 21 against Atlanta.

But as those big dates approach, the Fire are without a coach. They also haven’t added the front-office executive they promised in October, and the roster is far from complete.

How much this holdup affects the 2020 Fire remains to be seen, but it’s clear they’re behind schedule entering a crucial season.

Former coach Veljko Paunovic’s record didn’t get worse between the end of the season and Nov. 13 — the day he was officially dismissed — so the question of why the Fire took more than a month to sack him lingers. During a media roundtable on Oct. 14, president/general manager Nelson Rodriguez said the club was looking for an executive to handle the first team. Why that hire has taken so long remains unanswered.

“I’m confident we’ll find the right person, and that person will provide us some much-needed support,” Rodriguez said in October. “To me, it’s another logical step in our evolution as a club. It’s in line with the strategic plan that we presented to ownership back in March and that they approved.”

The Fire declined comment for this story.

The 17-player roster includes only one forward (CJ Sapong) and five young Homegrown players. The franchise also boasts no Designated Players.

The biggest roster news have been departures (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty), and Alvaro Medran is the only addition who figures to contribute next season.

As of Thursday, the Fire have one goalkeeper (Kenneth Kronholm) with senior experience. They need several attacking players with Aleksandar Katai and Nicolas Gaitan likely gone. The spine of the team must be rebuilt with Schweinsteiger retired and McCarty traded to expansion Nashville.

Attracting fans to Soldier Field also will be key, and a prominent, glitzy Designated Player would help. But the Fire are still looking for that kind of signing.

At least they’re moving closer to adding that executive to shape the roster, which likely would come before a coach is hired unless a candidate too good to pass up arises.

The Fire are interviewing for that unnamed position, and it has emerged that the team has spoken to Georg Heitz, the former sporting director for Swiss club FC Basel who helped unearth stars such as Mohamed Salah and Xherdan Shaqiri.

“I think it’s a question of mentality because we try to be the best in the country and get the best players,” Heitz told Goal.com in 2016, explaining Basel’s philosophy. “We invest a lot of money in our academy. The Swiss league is a good springboard for young players because it’s not as competitive as the [German] Bundesliga or [English] Premier League, which means it’s easier for young players to get minutes.”

Whether it’s Heitz or someone else, the new executive has a lot to get done and not much time to do it.

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