The Chicago Fire introduced Ezra Hendrickson as the club’s new head coach on Monday. The 10th head coach in club history sat alongside Sporting Director Georg Heitz, introduced himself, and answered questions from the Chicago media for the first time.
On Tap Sports Net virtually sat in on the press conference. Questions ranged from topics such as Hendrickson’s coaching experience, all the way to expectations for the 2022 season.
Overall, Hendrickson said some impressive things at the podium. His answers, combined with his experiences in MLS, should give Fire fans a glimmer of hope that he is the guy to get the Fire back to consistent winning ways.
Here are some thoughts and reactions to what Hendrickson and Heitz said on Monday:
Hendrickson did not hesitate in discussing the Fire’s arduous road ahead, admitting to the difficulty of the task at hand in his opening statement:
“There are going to be some growing pains, but just know that we’ll get this thing right and get this team back where they belong, and that’s to be one of the top teams in the league.”
Hendrickson used the phrase “growing pains” three different times throughout the press conference. Two different questions mentioned the phrase as well. It is not difficult to see the Fire have a long way to go.
The club has made the playoffs just twice in the past decade, with no appearance in Major League Soccer's second season since 2017. And after winning five trophies during its first nine years in existence, the Fire have not won a trophy of any kind since 2006.
On top of that, an already underperforming 2021 team will see nine players depart in 2022. Yes, most of these players underperformed themselves and deserved to not have their contract renewed or option picked up. But some of these players were key contributors at times, including leading goal scorers Luka Stojanović and Robert Berić.
This rebuild will take time. Fire fans must keep that in mind and be patient with Hendrickson and his staff. The fact Hendrickson admits to all this shows he is a realistic, and more importantly, honest person.
Lack of Leadership
Hendrickson was blunt when On Tap asked what he thought could be improved upon within the club:
“Well first, I want to say, I’m going to repeat that we have a lot of good, young talent. But sometimes you need leadership and you need someone to kind of help to bring in those players along, sort of an extension of the coaching staff…I think maybe some leadership, some issues that might need fixing as far as in the locker room.”
How is that for honesty?
Hendrickson may have been too honest as he implied Jonathan Bornstein would be returning to the Fire in 2022. Heitz confirmed Bornstein’s return later in the press conference and the team did the same earlier this week.
But the Fire will need more in the experience and leadership department. Bornstein is a great leader, someone that will always lead by example and gives his all for the club and its fans.
But he turns 38 next season and is in the twilight of his career. The Fire need more impact players that can also provide that dose of leadership that has lacked at times in Chicago.
"I think that’s one thing we need to improve,” Hendrickson continued. “Because the team is so young [with] a lot of inexperienced guys [and we need] to make sure that we have a good mixture of experienced guys to help bring the team along…That’s something we’ve been starting the process of.”
Speaking of Experience...
Ezra Hendrickson has a plethora of coaching experience. He has coached for over a decade, including a three-year stint as manager of USL’s Seattle Sounders 2 team. But this will be Hendrickson’s first time managing an MLS side.
When asked about that lack of experience, Hendrickson quickly pointed to his vast playing and coaching experience in MLS:
“There are always going to be detractors and I don’t really focus too much on that. I did coach Sounders 2, so I got some head coaching experience there. I know it’s not the same, but from my years of playing and as an assistant coach and being in a successful environment, I think I bring a lot to the table.”
There is no arguing that Hendrickson has had success as an assistant coach. Across his stints in Seattle and Columbus, Hendrickson won four U.S. Open Cups, a Supporter’s Shield, and most recently the 2020 MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew.
Add to that the eight trophies (three MLS Cups) he won as a player and Hendrickson has one packed trophy case.
There will be some growing pains for Hendrickson as the pressure and responsibility of a head coach cannot be matched or replicated. But it seems the Fire’s newest leader will be able to lean on the successes he has been a part of during those tough times.
Hendrickson is the second coach hired by Georg Heitz. The Fire are entering a second rebuild under Heitz and only winning soccer matches will appease the fans and owner Joe Mansueto. The Heitz/Hendrickson combo has to be the correct one, or both men will be looking for new jobs within the next handful of years.
But MLS is a league with high parity. A rebuild can take as little as a couple of seasons if the leadership gets it right. So, even with the growing pains that lie ahead, what does success look like in 2022? Heitz needed to pause and think about it.
“Thin ice,” Heitz said as the room filled with laughter. “I feel like every year, I say the same thing. But of course we want to make the playoffs. Of course. Because otherwise, we do not even need to start training in January.”
While not making the playoffs in 2022 does not necessarily mean the season is an unsuccessful one, the Fire must certainly make strides toward cracking the top seven in the East.
Being competitive and in the playoff conversation will likely be good enough for most Fire fans. At the very least, it would only add to the hope already instilled by the Fire’s newest head coach.