The MLS Players Association salary data released last Thursday confirmed what many thought about the Fire.
Their salary investments aren’t paying off.
According to the union’s numbers, the Fire (0-4-1, one point) have the 27-team league’s seventh-highest payroll at $13.6 million. The Fire aren’t the only team in the top seven struggling — FC Cincinnati (0-3-1) is fifth at $15.5 million — but their pattern of paying big money for mediocre results has carried over from the end of the Andrew Hauptman/Nelson Rodriguez era.
As anyone who follows the franchise knows, spending isn’t a problem under owner Joe Mansueto. They’re laying out $65.5 million to amend their lease with the Village of Bridge-view to move to Soldier Field, and the club is looking for land to build a training facility.
Twenty-eight games into their tenure, the issues are how sporting director Georg Heitz has handed out contracts and whether coach Raphael Wicky can make the pieces function together. Entering Saturday’s game against Inter Miami, which owns the league’s highest payroll but is just 2-2-2 (eight points), the indications aren’t promising.
Production from designated players is a key for success in MLS, and the Fire aren’t getting enough from the trio Heitz signed after his hire deep into the 2019-20 offseason. Robert Beric, the team’s highest-paid player at $2,703,164 in guaranteed compensation, delivered 12 goals last year but has one this season. Midfielder Gaston Gimenez ($2,358,667) hasn’t been the same player he was in 2020, while attacker Ignacio Aliseda ($821,501) only has played 24 minutes in 2021 because of injuries.
Heitz, who inherited a handful of tough contracts, chose last October to pick up the option on captain Francisco Calvo. A Rodriguez acquisition making $902,600, Calvo is the highest-paid player on a perpetually struggling back line.
Meanwhile, shrewd 2019-20 Heitz signings such as midfielder Luka Stojanovic ($373,400), defender Boris Sekulic ($643,900) and goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth ($125,750) haven’t been enough to avoid the worst five-game start in team history that has followed up 2020’s 11th-place finish.
Another concern is getting key parts to perform well together. One example of that Alvaro Medran, the Fire’s top overall player last year, has been quiet in the first five games, though his best moments have come with Stojanovic on the bench. Obviously, the Fire are tougher to handle if both contribute at the same time.
Even with an underwhelming injury-riddled roster, it’s Wicky’s job to get the most out of what he has been dealt and correct recurring mistakes. That hasn’t happened, even though the team believed continuity would bring progress.
If things don’t turn around after the team gets healthier, the Fire can opt to restart again this offseason. Among others, Beric, Gimenez and Calvo have club options for 2022, which could mean increased roster flexibility.
But If the Fire choose to tear it down and they’re still in charge, Heitz and Wicky would have to get considerably more from Mansueto’s money. They aren’t getting much now.