After a disappointing last-place finish in his first year as Chicago Fire General Manager, Nelson Rodríguez brought a tone of accountability to his first formal meeting with media members since the club's 2016 season concluded Sunday in Toronto.
“When I first came here and I took the job just over a year ago, I have to be honest I never for one second saw a last-place finish," Rodríguez admitted. "I thought it would be much easier to show tangible progress than what I think most people can look at this year ... I want to be clear: that’s all my responsibility. I assembled this team. While I expected more and was frustrated at times, or more than a few times, at the results, I also know that we’re making progress against our plan.”
For that reason, Rodríguez drew what for him is an important distinction between consecutive seasons at the bottom of the table that on the surface appear all too similar.
“Not only have the results not changed all that much, it’s incredible when you dive into the stats how similar they already are,” he said. “It’s hard for me to talk about what was here before because I wasn’t there ... I know we’re in a better position on the team salary budget than we’ve been in the past. I know that we’ve assembled a group of very hungry players that are either entering their prime or in their prime. We have two first round (MLS SuperDraft) picks. We have two (Designated Player) slots. We have allocation money. So we’ve set the stage.
"I think one big thing that has changed over the course of our eight or nine months with the group is we learned how to compete," he continued. "What we didn’t learn was how to win.”
Rodríguez’ initial season in Chicago was always going to be first-and-foremost about finding and establishing a foundation for his team to build upon moving forward. With players like Johan Kappelhof, Michael de Leeuw, David Accam and others guaranteed to return next season, he certainly has pieces to be excited about. However, he was up front about how his early hopes for greater immediate returns, his surprise at recurring mistakes, and his acknowledgment that expectations to improve in 2017 will be even higher now as a result.
“Some of that can be attributed to youth,” he said of the season's inconsistent performances. “Some of that can be attributed to a lack of cohesion that only comes by being together over time. But, I think that the players that return understand now the demands that we’re making. I think we gave them pretty fair warning yesterday that those demands will actually be greater, that the intensity of our regiment next year will be higher, and that expectations will certainly be much, much greater.”
Beginning immediately, club leadership sets course on an important offseason that will see the utilization of numerous available mechanisms to add key pieces on the field. Acquiring new personnel is just one aspect of the puzzle, however, and Rodríguez noted that it will take more on a person-to-person basis to get the organization to a place where consistent success can be achieved.
“What we need to do now is sacrifice more,” he said. “We need to give more. That starts with me and the coaching staff and the support staff. Then that trickles down to the players and transcends all the way through the organization and anyone who touches the team. I think it’s too simplistic to just look at 2015 results, because that was a compilation of all that came as part of that, and I think 2016 from my perspective – and I respect that for the fans it was a different continuum – was the start of a new process.”