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Look for Fire to add more experience and leadership this offseason

Coach Ezra Hendrickson and sporting director Georg Heitz thought the Fire were lacking in that area this year.

Sporting director Georg Heitz and coach Ezra Hendrickson both think the Fire need more experience and leadership.
Courtesy of the Fire

New coach Ezra Hendrickson saw a lot of the Fire as an assistant with the Columbus Crew.

Like others, he noticed one area where the Fire needed plenty of work.

“We have a lot of good, young talent, but sometimes you need leadership and you need someone to kind of help bring those players along,” Hendrickson said Monday during his introductory news conference. “Sort of an extension of the coaching staff, because as a coach or as a coaching staff, you don’t really sometimes have all that it takes to help with young players.

“I think maybe that some leadership [is needed], some issues that might need fixing, as far as in the locker room.”

It’s not surprising that Hendrickson or anybody else would feel that way.

As their record shows, the Fire’s mentality over the last two seasons was not conducive to winning. Making polarizing defender Francisco Calvo the captain before the 2020 campaign was a surprising choice, and none of the team’s acquisitions before the 2021 season would qualify as veteran leaders.

Bringing back 37-year-old defender Jonathan Bornstein is a start, but the Fire need to import more experience. Hendrickson recognizes that.

“It’s a process, and we are doing a lot behind the scenes to improve the team in that aspect,” he said. “But I think that’s one thing we need to improve. because the team is so young [with] a lot of inexperienced guys. . . . [We need to] to make sure that we have a good mixture of experienced guys to help bring the team along. There’s going to be growing pains. We want to win every game, but it’s not going to happen that way, but you need leaders in the locker room when things aren’t going so well that can, you know, lift guys up and say, ‘Hey, come on, let’s go.’ ”

One of the highlights of sporting director Georg Heitz’s time with the Fire has been their promotion of youth and Homegrown players.

In two seasons, Mauricio Pineda has become one of the club’s most important figures, Gabriel Slonina should be the starting goalie in 2022, and attacker Brian Gutierrez could be poised for a breakout. Colombian striker Jhon Jader Duran, who signed last offseason but isn’t old enough to join the team until next year, might end up as one of the Fire’s most exciting acquisitions.

Yet, as promising as they are, those players need veteran leadership and guidance. Slonina benefited from his relationship with experienced goalie Bobby Shuttleworth, and Bornstein is a positive presence. But Shuttleworth is gone, and Bornstein is just one individual, so more will be required.

Heitz, who will be in charge of another build after his first one missed the playoffs twice and stagnated in 2021, is on the same page as his new coach.

“We will definitely focus a little bit more on experience in this offseason, that’s for sure, because I completely agree with what Ezra says,” Heitz said. “We need more leadership in this group. That’s something that is obvious.”

NOTES: US Soccer announced that Slonina has been called up to the senior national team for its Dec. 18 game against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Carson, Calif. The call is Slonina’s first to the senior national team.

* The Fire announced they have re-signed defender Wyatt Omsberg for 2022 with team options for 2023 and 2024.