Chicago Fire President and General Manager Nelson Rodríguez hosted his first roundtable of 2019 with members of the local and national media, discussing a wide range of on- and off-field topics related to the Club. Watch the video in its entirety in the player above and view a full transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Opening Remarks: Thanks, everyone, for attending today, and for those tuning in. At the close of last year, I said that in order to move forward, our club needed to become more bold and brave, more bold in our vision and ambition, and more brave in our attitude and in our actions.
And in order to advance to a future that we imagined for ourselves, we needed courage, discipline, pride and stability. Today I share that we are making progress. Though there remains room for improvement, and we are not yet near our full potential, we are trending positively.
Internally, we speak about winning, serving and growing. In terms of growing the game or growing our club, this past off-season we secured Motorola, a Chicago-based world-class company, as our jersey partner, and our jersey launch registered nearly 10 million social media impressions. Coincidentally or not, the Q1 report for Motorola shows record revenues, and all of their metrics are up.
We've renewed 87 percent of all of our corporate partners. That's a record for the club, and about 20 percent greater than in any year over the last decade. CIBC is one of those who have renewed, and their tenure with us will now reach seven years, as they also continue to be the title partner to our Fire Pitch. Our Fire Pitch, the home of our recreation leagues, have also set records for number of teams, number of players in its history. And the Fire Pitch has also launched pickup soccer during the days, and since the start of the year, we've had over 4,000 players playing pickup soccer at the CIBC Fire Pitch.
And also in terms of growth, we recognize that Major League Soccer itself has selected our club to partner in helping to develop a data warehouse which will serve the entire league.
In terms of serving our community, our P.L.A.Y.S. program has grown once again, adding eight more schools and bringing the total for which we offer social and emotional learning skill development through the sport of soccer to 30 city schools. We reimagined our season kickoff luncheon and converted it into a gala that drew rave reviews from everyone in attendance. It was sold out, and it raised the most money for our foundation in any year, and we're continuing our efforts with Ken Griffin and the U.S. Soccer Foundation in building 10 more mini-pitches throughout the city.
This year we also launched The Hearth, an area that's been reserved for organizations and individuals who are simply making Chicagoland a better place.
And finally, on the field. Though the record may not say so, we remain confident in the current team. While we're unsatisfied with the record, we still believe that we're trending in the right way. The quality of competition and the spirit within the team is the best in my four years here. And advanced metrics reinforce our own analysis that our team is playing well and could or should have somewhere between 13 and 17 points. Under expected goal differential, not our statistic, one produced by Opta, we have the third best expected goal differential in the league, and by our expected goal count, we have outperformed every team but three.
Our academy under Cedric Cattenoy and his staff in his time has produced 25 different players for youth national team camps, and our graduating seniors of our academy have attended schools such as UIC, Indiana University, Wisconsin, Marquette, the U.S. Military Academy, and Stanford, just to name a few. For sure we have a lot to improve, and we will, but we are making progress, and this progress only fuels our desire for more. We will become the team that fans in Chicago can't live without.
Q. With the two major stakeholding owners now in play, how has your job changed and responsibility in reporting to those two owners, and how much involvement has Joe Mansueto exercised over the last year or so, not only from a monetary perspective but in terms of negotiations for the future of the club?
Nelson Rodríguez: I don't think that Joe's becoming a partner to Andrew Hauptman and the vice chair has changed my role or my responsibilities in any way. Joe and his family are fantastic people, great patrons of the city of Chicago, as well. I think that he and Andrew are remarkably similar in temperament and style, in ambition. He's added some enthusiasm and has a very positive outlook in general.
In terms of his involvement, very similar to Andrew. Very supportive, always available to serve as a sounding board, but I haven't noted that I've changed or been forced to change in any way.
Q. There was a report in the (Chicago) Sun-Times that the resigning planning and development commissioner of Chicago revealed there's a long-term idea to build a soccer stadium on the site of Michael Reese Hospital. Has the Fire been involved in that, and is the Fire looking at any other stadium sites in the city of Chicago?
Nelson Rodríguez: No, we haven't been involved in any planning or discussions regarding a stadium outside of Bridgeview. We have a current lease with the Village for Seatgeek Stadium. As I've said in the past, our fans will travel wherever we go. We have great fans, and the stadium that we play in is the one that we'll defend with honor and pride.
Q. Staying on the stadium topic, I know most people in this room have reported on whether you guys are leaving Bridgeview or not. Is there anything you can say on leaving Bridgeview or heading to Soldier Field in the near future?
Nelson Rodríguez: No, you know, our ownership group has been in discussions with Mayor Landek and the Village of Bridgeview for some time, but until or unless an agreement is reached, I don't have any comment. I'm not involved in those discussions.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: The question is there's an article in the Desplaines Valley News. That article is indicating that something became official Tuesday afternoon where we would play at Soldier Field next year. I'll answer first in English if that's okay for the benefit of everybody, and then if you need it in Spanish, I'll be happy to.
There is no signed agreement to which I am aware. John (Urban) and Sean (Dennison) were at the meeting where it was voted on. My understanding, it was voted on and approved by I don't know if it's the trustees of the Village of Bridgeview and Mayor Landek, but there is no signed agreement between our organization -- I'm not saying he's lying. I didn't read the article. I'm answering your question.
(Article shown to Nelson) I'll read it: "The breakup which had been hinted at for several years became official Tuesday afternoon when the Village board unanimously approved a memo of understanding between the Fire and Bridgeview. The next step is formally amending the lease, which is expected."
To your question, is the Desplaines Valley News lying? No, they're not lying. You asked a question, is the agreement signed? No, it is not signed. What is approved is their version of the memorandum of understanding, but nothing has been signed.
Q. Just to follow up on that, so you cannot confirm or discuss the details in that memorandum of understanding?
Nelson Rodríguez: That's correct. I cannot.
Q. Looking at the on-field product, how do you define progress and success? I know you pointed to some advanced metrics, but if you look at last year versus this year, through 10 games last year, the team had 11 points, this year 10 points, had five home games, which may have helped boost some of those metrics considering some of the opponents you played, as well. At what point does progress need to be seen in the standings?
Nelson Rodríguez: It always will. It's the ultimate measure, right? And we don't hide from that. The difference is we're not caught up in just the last result. There's a process to building a team. There's a process to building a culture. I think our competitive level within the group is better than it's ever been. I think our ability to play in different ways is better than it's ever been, and over 34 games, I'll be proven right or I'll be proven wrong. I don't know that it's inside of 10 games.
Only one time have we been able to play just this quartet: Gaitan, Katai, Sapong and Frankowski. I think we also need to give time for the full team to come together and gel. We just made two more important acquisitions in the past week with Francisco Calvo and Kenneth Kronholm, and I'm willing to give the time to the team and the coaching staff to put it all together.
Q. Speaking of Kenneth Kronholm, he was announced on Tuesday. With Dave Ousted being the starter so far this season and with already four goalkeepers under contract, what was the thinking behind bringing a player like Kronholm, knowing, again, the crowded room in the goalkeeper corps and with Dave Ousted already established as the starting goalkeeper?
Nelson Rodríguez: Well, first one of the four goalkeepers is Gabriel Slonina who's 14 years old, so we have no illusions that Gaga is ready to play anytime soon or in the near future. That contract is more -- we thought it was best for him and his family, and we obviously thought it was in our best interest as a club to secure his talents, particularly as there were already several European-based teams that were looking to sign him, even though they would have to wait until 16 years of age.
Regarding Kenneth and the other three goalkeepers, Kenneth is a goalkeeper that we had scouted and pursued for quite a while, and he's a player who desperately wanted to come and play for us. There are elements to his game that I think fit our model better than some of the talents that our current goalkeepers have. Pauno and I have always thought about having goalkeepers with different skill sets so that they could fit a particular game plan, depending upon how we wanted to play or how we anticipated the opponent playing. I think he's recovering from an injury right now. When he's healthy, I think he'll give our coaching staff that ability to consider those options.
I don't think that we could afford to miss this opportunity to bring him in because some of what we think he'll provide us is hard to find, and so we saw this as our one opportunity to have him. It's why he's guaranteed for next year, as well, and we believe he'll help us out.
Q. You recently spoke of the potential to rebrand or at least exploring it or I believe you referred to it as a refresh in aChicago Tribune column. Has there been any more exploration into changing the name or the badge or anything along those lines?
Nelson Rodríguez: Yeah, I mentioned it last year, and we've continued on that process. We're working with Major League Soccer and their brand and marketing development [sic] [department]. We've held some focus groups to get some input from fans and different segments of our fans. We've held some focus groups with just general Chicago sports fans, not even necessarily soccer fans or fans of the Fire. We haven't made any decision relative to -- I don't even know that there will be a name change, but a name change or colors.
We do need to accelerate that process a little bit, just to bring it to conclusion and make a decision if we're going to make a change and what that might be, and we have to speak to a few more different constituents and do a little bit more research before making a final decision.
Q. Fulfilling the needs of the club, I know defense has been something that's been lacking. Have you been looking further, whether it's in MLS or maybe even overseas where we can fulfill that spot to add a couple more defenders?
Nelson Rodríguez: Well, we think that with Francisco Calvo, that's a big help. You know, we wanted to increase our competitive level in the back line. I think that the intent had always been to play Bastian higher up the field. With Marcelo's injury in particular, that necessitated a change. I'll take this moment to say, I think Basti has been playing at an all-star level as a center back, but we'd still prefer to push him higher, although he'll always play wherever the coach asks him, and I think he's selfless in that regard.
We also should have Raheem Edwards back, and when we acquired Raheem, we saw him as a left-sided player who could play at left back, left midfield or left wing, and I think he'll help on the depth on that side. I think Jeremiah did a good job filling in in a brand new position for himself, that's Jeremiah Gutjahr, when Jorge Corrales was injured, and we have a young player on the left side, Andre Reynolds, who has also just been beset by injuries so far this year, but he's just getting healthy and we'll start to be able to get him into training soon.
So the back line, we could probably use some more cover and competition at right back, but between Marcelo when he returns, Johan, Calvo, Grant Lillard and Basti, I think we feel good at center back. Calvo's versatility to be able to play left back is a help. Johan's versatility to be able to play right back is a help. But really while a lot of folks have made a lot of commentary about our defense, I think it's really been our offense that's let us down so far.
I've mentioned that we've had better expected goals than our opponents in all but three games. That to me says we're generating the chances. We're just not finishing them. So we need to be sharper in front of the opposition goal and finish off our plays.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: The question is, What does this team need to achieve its results? What is affecting the team? Is it the style? Is it the mix of players? Is it the coaching?
My answer was for me, it's confidence-based. Last year we didn't manage to win two games in a row and haven't done that yet this year. Every time we seem to take a step forward, in the following game we either tie or lose, and we haven't been able to build momentum or build confidence. I don't want to take anything away from our opponents in the three-game road trip, but in the first two games I felt we lost those games more than we were beaten, and we have to correct those little errors. We have to build on that confidence.
I thought the last game against LAFC was an interesting and a really good game. I think there was a moment in the second half where we showed the type of team that we are and can be full-time where I actually thought we took over the game. I think (LAFC) Coach (Bob) Bradley and his staff made a really good substitution that changed the game, and then I think our staff readjusted and made some changes, as well, to ensure that we secured the point.
So for me, we still need some confidence to build belief.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: (The question is) since he's (the person asking the question) been here, he's always thought about and harkens back to Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and don't I believe that a Mexican player who fits the needs of the team is what's needed to build a better bond with the community.
My answer is our formula remains the same. First, we look at the person. Does the person share our values? Will he fit with us? Second, is the player -- does the player fit our game model? Do the economics work? Does the timing work? And then third, as was the case with Przemyslaw Frankowski, they all come together and you can have a Mexican player, a Polish player in this community, and it works. But we will not put the nationality of a player before his character as a man and before his fit as a player.
Q. What are the target demographics for Fire season ticket holders or even just fans who come to a couple games this season?
Nelson Rodríguez: The target demographics? I think they change, right, so right now across the league, the millenial is an active, avid and numerous fan, across, but it's not singular. So in our marketplace, we have the advantage of a diverse market with some heavy populations, just as Armando indicated. There's a predominantly Mexican fan base, smaller fan bases of other Latino origin. You have just a general soccer population, as well.
Major League Soccer conducted a study over the last few years, and in every market they surveyed a minimum of 2,000 fans. That's a big survey over the course of 20, 22 teams, and what they have recommended and the path that we have followed is simple: The fan bases that we try to attract is the soccer fan and the sports enthusiast, okay. Chicago, of the three major markets, actually is number one when you combine the known soccer fan and sports enthusiast, more than LA and more than New York. And then there's a series of factors that those fans look at in how they identify themselves and what's important to them, from having a competitive team, to rivalries, to in-stadium atmosphere, to an overall fan experience, to the quality of your broadcast.
And so we have looked at all of those factors across those two broad fan bases, the general sports fan and the soccer enthusiast, and what we are trying to craft is a plan that we call cradle to grave. I am a personal believer that we need to go younger for our fans, that we should go 6 to 10 and 6 to 11 years old, because when you capture a young child's heart and imagination, you've got it forever.
But along that continuum, there are different segments of the fan base. So for the 6- to 10-year-old, we have to speak to them in a way that might utilize (Fire mascot) Sparky. For the millenial, we have to do things like on May 25th at our home game May 25th as part of an expanded Fire Fest we're going to open up a Heineken beer garden, and we're going to have music and games and promotions that are geared towards that millenial fan base.
But there again, there still needs to be room for the family, with affordable tickets and a section that might not be right next to our hard-core supporters.
Earlier in March, the management team presented to our ownership group a strategic direction, something that we felt we needed to go forward with, and this idea of cradle to grave was a big element of that.
Another big element of our strategic direction to hit the target market segments that you talk about is being more present in all 77 of our neighborhoods. We need to go face-to-face much more often, and we need to utilize our players in that role, as well.
At the end of last year, we made a conscious decision to try to be more present in the city. So what we did, first, we sponsored the United Soccer Coaches' convention, the largest convention in the world, and we helped that convention set records for attendance. It's from all over the country and all over the world. By the way, we helped that convention generate an economic impact of $22 million for the city of Chicago.
Second, we set up a pop-up shop in the Wrigley building, just to be part of the Magnificent Mile and to be part of the holidays.
Third, we had a meet the newcomers event at the Blackstone. We took the gala from McCormick Place to a cooler, trendier vibe. And we have other designs and other plans to have more activity in the city.
With all of that design to appeal to broadly the sports fan and the soccer enthusiast, knowing that underneath that we have to have specific messaging and specific programming to hit different segments of that continuum.
Is that too much?
Q. No, it's what I was looking for. It sounds like you're targeting more the city fan than the suburban fan; is that accurate?
Nelson Rodríguez: Yeah, I think it is. You know, I think -- I don't know if more is accurate, but looking at what we had done in recent years, we withdrew from the city, and I wasn't here so I don't know the context, so I'm not criticizing that decision because I don't know the context of it. Today I think we need to step back into the city. We need to become an active participant in the city. We're doing so a lot through our work with Chicago Public Schools and all of the activities we do for them. We do that a lot through our P.L.A.Y.S. program. We're not only building those 50 mini-pitches, but we want to program against those 50 mini-pitches.
But I think to be part of the broader conversation, we need to invest more in the city, and we're doing that.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: From the last roundtable, I mentioned three things: More urgency, particularly in scouting, finding better players in the spine of the team. Second, fan relations, and third, getting younger and getting younger players. Do I feel that we are achieving against those?
Ownership has increased our budget by a half a million dollars for scouting. We're in the process of hiring two full-time scouts. We've also developed an association with Driblab out of Europe, which has helped us with our scouting.
Regarding the spine of the team, the spine was pretty well set with Niko (Nemanja Nikolic), Basti (Schweinsteiger) and Dax (McCarty), but we have brought in two new goalkeepers and two new central backs, so we think we've made progress there.
And regarding his second point, fan relations, we have the second group behind the other goal. Through the first five games, zero arrests, zero ejections, zero medical transports. We've never had a five-game run like that. That's in both groups. This Saturday there's a Rock Against Racism concert that's being put on by the supporters, and we are aiding and assisting them in that, so I think that the relations with supporters is better than it has been.
I think we have brought in younger players. I think you all understood the names. Our average age prior to Kronholm, because I haven't done it since his acquisition, we're a half year younger than we were. Sam Stejskal in the past year spoke about that 27 to 29 age group, and I think a guy like Calvo and having Kappelhof come back shows that we're trying to address that age group, as well.
Q. You mentioned right back; is that something heading into the next window a position you guys are going to be targeting pretty heavily?
Nelson Rodríguez: Yes, pending how the rest of the time plays out before the July 9th window opens. You know, I'll also say this, which might be a surprise, but all three of our DP's are out of contract at the end of this year. We have not taken a decision on any of them and won't until the year is over, and I don't know what decisions they will take. You know, when you're out of contract, within six months of out of contract, you're permitted to sign another contract with any other club in the world.
But we will be scouting for DP's. We have some players that we're tracking now that would require DP status and DP level of investment, and I also have permission from ownership that if the right player in the right circumstances comes along, we may sign a DP in the summer, and if we can't add him to our current roster, loan him out and then just bring him back in January.
So while we currently have Diego (Campos), Johan (Kappelhof), maybe (Przemyslaw) Frankowski who played a spectacular game at right back against LAFC, maybe Jeremiah (Gutjahr) can flip over to the right side, it is something we will continue to look at, but our intentions for the summer are still bigger than that.
Q. To switch gears a little bit, with all the recent turnover in head coaches in Major League Soccer, in 2017 there was a new record for coaching change. In 2018 that record was broken, and already this year two coaches have been dismissed, what is the importance that you place on the continuity in Pauno as all the other clubs the trigger is getting quicker and quicker?
Nelson Rodríguez: A lot, and I don't recall if you've been a member of the roundtables in the past, but I believe the continuity is important. I believe it's helping us. I believe that Pauno helped us get Nico Gaitan. I believe Pauno helped us close Frankowski. I believe that Pauno helped us get Kenneth Kronholm. This guy is an amazing recruiter, and these players want to play for him as much as they want to play for Chicago Fire.
I am not offering any judgment on other teams and the decisions that they take. I just believe that we need continuity. The game model that we're trying to establish is not easy and requires a will and an attitude and a mentality, not just from the coaching staff but from the players that we bring in, and so for us, I think the continuity is important.
And yes, results matter, and yes, I'll be judged by results. But I still believe very firmly in this coaching staff. I feel -- I believe very firmly in our academy staff, and on the academy front, the fruits are starting to show, the results are starting to show, and I think on the first team front, that will follow, as well.
Q. In the last roundtable there was some discussion about either a new training facility or upgrading the current training facility here at SeatGeek (Stadium). Where are you in terms of addressing that training upgrade, whether it's here or outside of Bridgeview, and does that have an impact based on any potential future move away from here?
Nelson Rodríguez: Our current lease is such that our primary training facility must be here, and so anything that we have been looking at up to now has been based on supplementing the primary facility.
We also are looking because our academy needs more fields. There's no easy way to say that or clearer way to say that.
We are committed to making improvements here, on the grounds here. We have opened up that discussion with the Village (of Bridgeview), and our ownership group has made that commitment to make improvements here, and it is my goal, my expectation that we'll start to see some of those improvements this year, this summer.
Q. Just to be clear, a name change is still possible?
Nelson Rodríguez: Yeah, we haven't taken anything off the table. The focus groups have been interesting. You know, there have been some who have sided heavily with retain the name because of its history. There have been many who have said, you know, different things, from – “well, the fire was devastating and bad for the city, so why name yourself after a disaster?” We're not supposed to, but we took some time to explain that that's -- we prefer to view that differently.
But no decision has been made yet. I think we need to talk to more fans. We need to have more focus groups on that front. We're mindful and we've looked at some of the other changes that have occurred within the league and how those have worked or not worked and why they have or maybe why they haven't. But we're open-minded.
One thing, and I said this originally, something has to change. We cannot -- the badge can't stay exact -- even if it's something subtle or simple, but we have to distinguish ourselves as a sporting club and not be confused with just a TV show or a local fire department.
Q. But your team has been around longer than the TV show; I mean, why would you guys be in a position where you could be confused with them? Isn't that sort of an indictment of what this franchise is?
Nelson Rodríguez: I'm not insulted by that. I think we have lost relevance. Not winning hurts us in that regard. But I also think the actual badge, and even though our full name is Chicago Fire Soccer Club, everybody writes and says Chicago Fire, which is the exact name of the show, and our badge looks too much like almost any fire department's badge.
Those are personal opinions. My personal opinion won't carry the day. Input from fans, input from the league, input from design professionals, of course our ownership will have a say. What I'm saying is nothing is off the table.
Q. With Calvo coming in, you have a decent number of players that you've acquired in the last couple of years that are maybe out of favor with the team you got them from for one reason or another. Katai, Marcelo, maybe CJ Sapong on some level, (Bastian) Schweinsteiger, although that’s a different case too. Is that a trend that you try to identify players and their risk in getting a player that's out of favor with another team?
Nelson Rodríguez: First, I would dispute your premise. I don't think CJ was out of favor with Philadelphia. I don't think Chris Albright was lying to me when he said that was the most difficult trade and the most difficult conversation he's had to have with a professional. It was more that they had designs on some new forwards, and they didn't think he'd play, and they wanted to be good to CJ and give him an opportunity to play.
Who else did you mention, Katai? I think he's been -- I know he only has one goal this year, but in so many ways I think his play is better this year than it was last year.
Who else did you mention?
Q. Marcelo, Calvo --
Nelson Rodríguez: I'm not aware of any issues with Marcelo.
Q. Just that he wasn't playing on his previous team, that's all.
Nelson Rodríguez: But I don't know if that means he was a problem. What I'll say is this: Can someone trade for Tom Brady? It's really hard. You know why? He's really, really good. So those guys are harder to get because you don't want to surrender those players or you can't surrender them easily.
I think if we've been able to find those players, and thankfully the ones you've mentioned I think have been hits for us, Katai we had for a full year for free. Free. He scored 12 goals. That's a pretty good thing. And now we purchased his full-on transfer and we'll see if we can keep him for longer or perhaps sell him on if that's the case.
I think CJ is our current leading scorer. He's proven himself to be a really valuable player for us.
You know, you always want to acquire the best possible player. Within the league, even look at the close of this window, was there a player for player trade? Paul (Tenorio from The Athletic), you might know best. I don't think so.
Q. A player-for-player trade? No.
Nelson Rodríguez: So it's just become incredibly difficult matching up those valuations. And what I've often said is if certain guys were at their best all the time, they'd be unattainable.
I don't think it's any design. I think it's more a matter of, as we always do, trying to find the right guy and then the right fit for a game model.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: He said, “You speak about progress, but so far only players have changed, nothing else has changed. How long are you going to wait before there's other change?”
My question to Jose was what teams have changed coaches frequently and yet the team's fortune has changed?
Q. I don't know if it's frequently, but sometimes it's one change that leads to other results, right?
Nelson Rodríguez: This club has changed its coach frequently. Pauno is the first coach make it through three full seasons. He's the first one … en esta epoca (in this period of time).
Q. When you were talking about kind of the demographics that you look at, that the league looks at, one area that -- from that study that seemed that the league has deemphasized in some way out of it is the soccer, the actual product on the field, and I believe that it can sell more on entertainment than it needs to on the product. And yet, we have seen that an increase in quality on the field for MLS has had an impact when you look at Target Allocation Money, and when you look at specific markets, we know that some of the issues in Houston have been based around the fact that they've tried to market the team on specific nights to come out and family discount night or whatever, and that's not worked. Now they have one of the best teams in the league, the attendance is down. In Orlando, they've struggled to compete, and the crowds are thinning substantially. When you are thinking about the Fire, not just this year but especially if you're moving into a stadium that holds 61,000 people, how much more important does the on-field product become, does winning become, in order to create excitement beyond just a rebrand or beyond just a single individual player?
Nelson Rodríguez: There's nothing more important than winning. And I'm a little surprised to hear you say that you think the league is deemphasizing the soccer, given the massive amounts of money that teams are putting into the product, into academies, into players, into allocation, into DP's. It's at record levels. So I don't think any team in the league is deemphasizing soccer or investment in the quality of the game.
Nothing is better than winning. Nothing. And nothing is a magic bullet or a cosmetic change. It's a mosaic. The successful teams and the successful clubs have a mosaic that is comprised of a lot of different tiles. Fan experience is one, player identification is another. Is the player relatable beyond just being good? I don't need to go further back than studying the history of this club. In the early years they played good futbol, they won, their players were in the community. They were in the heart of the city. It was fantastic. And somewhere along the line, some of those elements were lost, some were distorted, some were ignored, and so I don't fool myself and say, oh, we changed our colors, so suddenly we're worthy. Absolutely not.
But the whole package has to be worthy. We could have a great team, but if we don't service our fans well, that's not going to matter, either. We could service our fans great, but if we don't win games or play well, that's not going to satisfy fans, either.
So I think it's a range of different factors that have to come together, and it goes to everything, goes to broadcast quality, as well, and what you're doing there and what you're doing in the community. How well do you tell your story? There's so much to it.
You know, I think that … I believe that we're on the right path. I believe that we're prioritizing the right things. I think we are trying to reimagine this club in a way that will get us closer to MLS 4.0 than its current 1.0. And I'm grateful for the support that I've gotten from ownership. I'm grateful for the resources that they continue to give to us and plow in. We've used our full complement of DTAM, we have three DP's, we've used one and have already booked a second of our four charter legs. They've allowed us to make inroads into the city with the pop-up shop. There was no financial return on what we did with the United Soccer Coaches (convention), but that's a six-figure investment. Why? Because we think it's good. Because we think it's smart. And we'll continue to do that.
We have other plans and programs and projects that we will reveal in time, but I think all of this goes together.
Q. In that line of thinking of the brand and appealing within the city, with the wide array of nationalities and languages spoken within the roster, within the club itself, and --
Nelson Rodríguez: Isn't it great?
Q. It's fantastic. And of course within the city the great diversity that exists, in those programs that you mentioned just now, has there been consideration in terms of appealing by way of languages, different languages, whether it's Spanish or beyond Spanish, Polish, German, Arabic, given the fact that there's between the club and the audience?
Nelson Rodríguez: Look, I think the big advantage that we have is that our sport is spoken by every language, and if we get our sport right, that will speak its own language in a way that will resonate with everybody.
There's a practicality that exists, as well. As crazy as it sounds, I'm not sure we could translate everything into every language. Despite the fact that I think we're getting the right resources and all, you still have to be a little bit targeted with that.
What I do think is we can and we need to use our players more as ambassadors for the club and for the sport and for the city. There's always a tension there because that can be seen as distracting or detracting from the on-field product and the need to put that on the field, and those are quiet moments that Pauno and I have to discuss how to find that right balance.
Q. Another rebrand question: What has the focus group shown in terms of the Fire are one of the more unique MLS clubs in that they don't have a European style like United or FC name. Has the research shown that the European style is kind of more favorable or the American way of thinking?
Nelson Rodríguez: No, not that I recall. I don't even recall that question specifically coming up. Some of the questions were, What do you think of the logo? There was one really super interesting fan who started out by saying, “I really like the logo; it's awesome, they shouldn't change it. Except the C is, like, weird. It's like a weird-shaped C. I don't know why they do that. I'm not quite certain why they have the gray interior. It looks too much like…” So start out by saying it was great, then picked it apart piece by piece for five minutes and then ended by saying, “It's great.”
But I don't recall that we've deliberately considered yet a question as to whether a more classic, I'll say, rather than European because there's a whole 'nother hemisphere that plays the game pretty well. I don't think that's come up. Do you have a point of view that you'd like to share?
Q. No, I was wondering if it's going to stay Chicago Fire SC or move to Chicago Fire FC.
Nelson Rodríguez: I don't know. I don't know.
Journalist: And in terms of my point of view, I'm cool with whatever.
Nelson Rodríguez: Focus group of one added. Thank you.
Q. Earlier you mentioned about the fans being in the city might be a better way to go, but I was thinking back to the other question earlier, what about the suburban fans? I know in different MLS clubs like LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, they seem to do okay with suburban fans. Why the difference in this case?
Nelson Rodríguez: I didn't say city fans were the way to go, I said we need to be more involved and more present in the city. And I stand by that. I think there's a vibrancy to the city, and there's a pulse to the city. You know, we need to be seen there. We need to be active there. Our players need to be known to be eating in the restaurants there.
Ninety percent of our players live within the city. But we need to help ourselves be captured in the socialite pages and in those events. I think there's room for all fans everywhere. And look, I won't duck it; when you are winning and when you're playing well, they'll come, from everywhere, to anywhere. But the league has evolved. The league has changed. We need to catch up to that. We're behind in that regard. And I think we're making progress in that.
As far as the city, like I said, whether it's corporate partners, where our players are living, there's just -- there's a natural connection there that needs to be made and needs to be made stronger.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: The question was, We'd be remiss if we had a press conference without mentioning Basti. He's clearly a leader on the field, but it's also clear that he's slower. Is there any ideas of how to replace him moving forward, and are there any names that you're willing to share?
My response was (translating his own answer from Spanish): with Basti, we've taken it year by year every year. We've said let's get through the year and then we'll discuss the following year. I think Basti deserves that, and we're going to give him that. We'll see it. But it's undeniable that he's entering a phase of his career where 34 games at 90 minutes a game is probably too much, and we have to think about the leadership of the team moving forward without him.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: If I'm not translating fairly, please speak up, because he said it, but it did bring a smile to my face. He said he thinks it's good we're respecting Basti's career and it's good for an institution to respect a player in his career. He (the journalist) had a (playing) career and he thinks that's a good thing. So gracias. He also thinks that consistency is okay and is important in finding results; however, the results are still what matter the most. Do I believe that some of the things that are happening off the field are distracting or impacting our inability to get the results? No.
My answer was I don't think the things outside of the fields are impacting the team. I don't think they're the reason why we haven't been able to win as consistently. I think it's our job to get it out of the team, our job to get it out of the players, to find and elicit that consistency. In this league, momentum can take you far, and when you're not going well, it can drop you really low, and I think that's on us to get it out of the team and the team to help itself get it.
Q. We're a little more than a year into your contract with ESPN+. How do you evaluate your deal with them as the sole provider of so-called local broadcasts, and how many Chicago area fans do you have viewing games on ESPN+?
Nelson Rodríguez: Good question. So it's a bit of a frustration in that ESPN has not shared viewership numbers, which is a frustration for some of our corporate partners, as well. There are two million subscribers, which dwarfs the reach of our previous contract. ESPN+ continues to grow, not just in its subscribers but in its content and its product, and if you love the sport (of soccer), ESPN+ has clearly been the place to be.
I still think we're on the forefront and the cutting edge of this. The biggest challenge that we faced, and it's dissipated I think in part because some of the remedies we tried to apply, was public viewing, so ESPN+ is not available for public viewing, but with a simple device -- I won't mention the brand names -- and we went to 30 different associated bars and pubs and gave them that device, you can watch E+ on there. What we feel good about is all of the support that we are getting.
So this year we added a host in Brittany Arnold. This year we've added more cameras through ESPN+. Later this year we're going to add a telestrator. So ESPN and their promotion for us nationwide, quite frankly, has been helpful, as well. We just met with the executives of ESPN+ in New York, John Urban and I, two weeks ago, and we spoke to them about the ratings concern that we have and also how we can provide further mutual support for each other.
So even though we've gotten this new support with more cameras, telestrator, host, we're going to get more support from ESPN+. That's what's been told to us. We're going to take them at their word, and I feel good about that direction that we're going.
Once we receive those numbers, we'll share them. But we're optimistic that they're going to be fantastic because our reach is just so much bigger, and the sport is so much bigger.
Q. Internationally or within the Chicago area?
Nelson Rodríguez: Chicago area and nationally. I wouldn't say international. I don't know that E+ is available internationally. I don't think it is. Is it? It's not, yeah.
Q. (Question in Spanish.)
Nelson Rodríguez: The question was in 2017 you had a really good year, and it seemed that things came together. Last year it seemed that injuries contributed. To try to be more like '17 and less like '18, is there a plan B in the summer to bring in reinforcements?
In terms of plan B for the summer, given the salary budget, the number of foreign players, our overall senior roster size, it would be difficult to bring in a high-salaried player without moving somebody out. So our plan for the summer is either to look and buy players, buy their contracts in the summer for incorporation into January, or to bring a player in if we can sell or trade a player to make room.
Q. You talked about the importance of being more relevant in the city. How important is it for you guys to then eventually move into a stadium in the city?
Nelson Rodríguez: Well, look, I think that we have attracted fans here to Bridgeview, and when the team is good, the place is rocking. So I think the first thing is we've got to win. We've got to win games. You know, and that's primary. I think what we have to worry about is today and what we're doing today and where we are today. If and when we're told that this isn't our stadium, then we'll look at something else, but even there, if and when we ever got to the city, it's still the same thing. You've got to win, you've got to service, you've got to have a good marketing plan. It's a mosaic of things. So I don't think it changes. At least not in my perspective.
Q. Are the Chicago Fire a playoff team this year?
Nelson Rodríguez: I think we are. I think we are. I like our team, and I like our group. I thought Nico Gaitan had his best game against LAFC, and I think he'll get better because our team will know how to work with him better. I think Katai will start to score goals. I think Niko (Nikolic) will start to finish his chances. I think the league is going to -- if they haven't already, is going to take notice of Frankowski, who is a very dynamic player and a good player.
I think we're deep -- we have a deeper roster. We have more variety, and I like us. Now, time will tell, and we'll see how it all goes, but I do think we're a playoff team, and I think we're a damn good team.
One other bit of news, if I'm allowed to share it, and we'll send a release to this effect, but we've re-signed Brandt Bronico to a new contract. We've improved his contract for this year, guaranteed him for next year, and added an additional year on an option. I wanted to make that announcement because I think BB is a perfect embodiment of our club and the mentality and the type of character that we want as a member of the team. This is a player who continuously does the right things, does things in the right way, and always gives his best. He's active in the community. He doesn't draw attention to himself for that. But he does -- he's a fantastic teammate, and when he's called upon to do his job, he does it quite well. So I think this is a reward that he earned and he deserved, and we're glad that he agreed to it and wants to stay longer with us, as well.