Ezra Hendrickson’s résumé is filled with success. As a player and assistant coach, Hendrickson has been part of some of American soccer’s model franchises while collecting championships and trophies at every stop.
But before the Fire hired him in November, Hendrickson said he never even had an in-person interview for a head-coaching job. Did he think the lack of opportunities was race-related?
“Sometimes I think you wonder why maybe you didn’t get an opportunity to at least interview before,” Hendrickson told the Chicago Sun-Times “I think because of my successes as a player and as an assistant coach, you would have thought that someone before would’ve brought me in and just sat me down and talked and tried to figure out what my philosophy is, what my style of play is, what my ideas are about leading the team or winning a championship. But it’s nothing I have control over.
“That’s in the past, and I just want to move forward, and now that I’m here, be successful and make sure that I do what it takes to make this a sustainable position and a sustainable job and just win more trophies now as a head coach.”
Hendrickson, 50, has plenty of work to do before he can win trophies with the Fire. His new club hasn’t done that since winning the 2006 U.S. Open Cup and hasn’t even made the playoffs since 2017. At the same time, the Fire have invested heavily this offseason by bringing in designated players Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres along with striker Kacper Przybylko and defender Rafael Czichos to supplement a young roster.
So, like any job, Hendrickson feels pressure to succeed. As somebody who joked he can find room on his fingers for more rings, Hendrickson is used to winning and doesn’t plan on stopping in his new gig.
That, however, isn’t the only factor driving Hendrickson.
“There’s some pressure, but I think in any head-coaching position throughout the league, there’s pressure just because of the nature of the job,” Hendrickson said. “Being a [Black] coach and wanting to be successful comes with a little bit more pressure than normal, but it’s something that can go one of two ways. If you’re successful, then maybe that helps the league and other owners see that it’s OK to allow a [Black person] to be a head coach of a team. So that pressure of making sure that what you do is professional, it’s successful and something that other teams might draw inference to, is very, very important.
“I don’t take this position lightly. I know that all eyes are on us, and people are going to want to see what happens in Chicago. I’m very prepared for that kind of situation.”
The second full-time Black head coach in Fire history after Denis Hamlett, Hendrickson is one of three Black coaches in MLS along with Colorado’s Robin Fraser and Montreal’s Wilfried Nancy. For its part, MLS recognized more has to be done to increase racial diversity in leadership positions.
In December, the league updated its hiring policy that was first crafted in 2007. Working with representatives from the Black Players for Change and the Soccer Collective on Racial Equality, the new guidelines require a group of finalists for any open sporting position to include two or more non-white candidates, including one who is Black. Teams must demonstrate the interview process was equal to all candidates, and clubs that violate the policy can be fined up to $50,000 for their first offense and $100,000 for their second.
Before he deems the new rules a success, Hendrickson is in wait-and-see mode.
“They say the proof is in the pudding. If we see results, if we see more [Black people] being hired based on their merits, based on their qualification, then the initiatives are successful,” Hendrickson said. “I’m all for mandates and initiatives trying to rectify the situation and get more [Black] coaches in, but I just want it to be something that’s not just there in writing, something that’s actually a practice. If a guy’s qualified, regardless of what he looks like, he gets the job. As long as that is happening, I’m all for it. But just having things on paper is not enough.
“I think the league is doing a good job of changing that situation and allowing more people to have that opportunity to be leaders. I’m happy for that.”
2022 CHICAGO FIRE
2021 record: 9-18-7, 34 points (12th in Eastern Conference).
Key additions: M Xherdan Shaqiri, M Jairo Torres, F Kacper Przybylko, D Rafael Czichos.
Key subtractions: G Bobby Shuttleworth,D Francisco Calvo, M Alvaro Medran,M Luka Stojanovic, M Ignacio Aliseda,F Robert Beric.
Best-case scenario: The arrivals of Shaqiri, Przybylko and Torres help the Fire find the goals they couldn’t get last season, while Czichos provides a calming influence for a young back line. The result is an exciting team that meshes under new coach Ezra Hendrickson to easily make the MLS playoffs, enticing fans to sample an improved product at Soldier Field.
Worst-case scenario: Shaqiri’s history of injuries comes back to bite him, and young designated player Torres doesn’t get settled, both factors limiting Przybylko’s service. Despite lining up next to ball-winner Federico Navarro and playing the role he’s suited for as a deep-lying distributor, Gaston Gimenez once again fails to live up to his DP status. The team’s lack of depth becomes a problem, and it adds up to more of the same: no playoffs and renewed concerns about the franchise’s on-field direction.
Prediction: Sporting director Georg Heitz approached the offseason with an aggressive plan, and it brought the Fire a competitive team that should be worth watching. Jumping from 12th to one of the East’s seven playoff spots is a tough ask, but it looks doable. The Fire will finish seventh in the conference to earn their first postseason berth since 2017. More importantly, it feels like the Fire finally have a legitimate foundation.