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On blame, and culture: How much longer do we have to wait for the Chicago Fire to win?

Patrick McCraney Avatar
May 16, 2022

The Fire failed again.

This time, it was a 2-1 loss at Soldier Field to FC Cincinnati, where the two biggest errors of the night were self inflicted–Rafael Czichos’ header over Gaga Slonina, and Slonina’s bad touch giveaway late that led to Lucho Acosta’s winner.

Chicago remains dead last in the Eastern Conference, about to embark on a three game road trip that will see them visit the New York Red Bulls (Wednesday), NYCFC (Sunday), and Toronto FC (Saturday, May 28).

After an off season filled with more hope than we’ve seen in years, the Fire are in the same old position. Once again, I sat here this morning, writing this column, trying to figure out whom to blame–Georg Heitz? Ezra Hendrickson? Joe Mansueto? Xherdan Shaqiri?

Then I was reminded of something my wife says to me often. “We don’t always have to find someone to blame,” she will say. Not every failure requires blame. Failure should–always–spark self-reflection from all involved, and generate potential solutions, but it doesn’t mean someone needs to be punished every time.

Let’s test this theory: We could blame Joe Mansueto, the Fire’s owner, in a Harry Truman, The Buck Stops Here kind of way. After all, he’s the leader, right? But what has Mansueto done to warrant any kind of fault here? He, by all accounts from dozens of people I’ve spoken to around the organization, is a fantastic owner, willing to spend money, but smart enough to stay hands off and trust others to do their jobs. Maybe, we could argue, he’s put his trust in the wrong people who are letting him down.

We could blame Georg Heitz, who, after all, built this team in its current form. After 2.5 years in charge, it’s more than fair for Heitz to shoulder some of the blame. In Major League Soccer, it’s actually more likely a team will make the playoffs than miss out, and the Fire failed to meet even the most basic goal of playoff qualification the last two years. But, this season? Heitz, in the last year, has landed Shaqiri, Jairo Torres, Kacper Przybylko, Rafael Czichos, Federico Navarro and Chris Mueller. There should be debates about many of his decisions–especially earlier in his tenure–but those signings on paper are a team that should qualify for the playoffs, at a minimum. Stepping back to look at the big picture, Heitz also oversaw the takeover of FC Lugano, a club that won the Swiss Cup over the weekend, and should do nothing but help the Fire long term.

Does that mean Ezra Hendrickson is to blame? He’s the guy charged with coaching this group, and to date, hasn’t figured out a way to score goals on a team with Shaqiri as its No. 10. Sure, he’s only been on the job since November, but he’s had more time here than some coaches in Europe would have gotten at this point. If I’m being honest, it’s ridiculous to even think about firing Ezra at this point. Six weeks ago fans were raving about how he’d transformed the team’s defense. Hendrickson has surely made mistakes in his first few months, but considering the club has been terrible for more than a decade, placing full blame on his shoulders after a few months seems seems silly.

Is it the players’ faults then? Could they be doing more? If Slonina or Czichos had just done something differently in the week leading up to the Cincinnati match–trained a little harder, slept a little more, drank a little more water–could they have avoided those mistakes? This also seems ridiculous, but the margins at this level are extremely thin. Every little thing matters.

So, then what’s going on here?

Ultimately, I don’t think any one person is solely to blame. Yes, the team has been disappointingly bad, but I don’t think the Fire will ever have sustained success until they’ve first created a culture that fosters it.

A few weeks ago, before the first game of the Concacaf Champions League, I asked Hendrickson about how, in a league of parity, the Seattle Sounders are able to win every season (they, of course, went on to become the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League shortly after our conversation). Hendrickson was a longtime assistant with the Sounders, and was later the head coach of Seattle Sounders 2 (now Tacoma Defiance), the club’s second team. Here’s what he said:

“As far as the organization, it’s just the way it’s ran, top down, from the owner down to the last guy off the bench. I think everyone has a way of…professionalism is expected of everyone in that organization. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you work in the organization. Everything is professionally done.

“That’s something that we’re trying to do here, and I think our owner is similar to Adrian Hanauer in that he wants the best for this team, for this organization, for this city. Adrian is a local Seattle guy, and Joe is a local Chicago guy here, so we’ve been here for a while now, so he wants to see this city succeed and this team succeed, so he’s doing his best with his resources to help us.

“I think that’s something that the Sounders have gotten from Adrian and the rest of the owners on that team. It’s just a very professionally ran organization from top to bottom, and I think that leads to success on the field.”

Unlike most of life, professional sports have clear winners and losers. Because of that, people will always debate where to place blame, and losing teams will always see firings and roster overhauls. It’s part of the deal. If the Fire can’t dig themselves out of this hole and earn a playoff spot this season, Mansueto should absolutely consider firing Heitz.

But, until the Fire can completely overhaul the club’s culture to something much closer to what’s going on in Seattle, where every last employee is pushing toward the same goal by looking critically at themselves first, rather than blaming others, the club will never win. A mere playoff birth would be considered a failure for the Sounders, and it would be celebrated here in Chicago. That’s depressing.

Culture change starts with Mansueto and trickles on down, but he knows that already. His other business successes show he’s a patient guy who’s willing to play the long game to get things right. Let’s hope that strategy pays off here, and all this misery will be worth it.

see this city succeed and this team succeed, so he’s doing his best with his resources to help us. I think that’s something that the Sounders have gotten from Adrian and the rest of the owners on that team. It’s just a very professionally ran organization from top to bottom, and I think that leads to success on the field.

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