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Tradition, Honor, Passion: How Embracing the Past is Beginning to Improve the Fire's Future

Led by Ezra Hendrickson, the Fire are placing an emphasis on embracing the Fire's successful past. The club hopes it will result in a bright future. So far, it is paying off.
Ezra Hendrickson Chicago Fire FC

Photo: Chicago Fire FC

Chicago Fire Football Club is enjoying its best start to a season since 2009. Things are clicking on all cylinders, and there are many reasons to credit for said start.

New signings like Rafael Czichos have brought a sense of calm, confidence, and leadership to a team that has given up just one goal in four matches.

Marquee attacking players Kacper Przybylko and Xherdan Shaqiri have given the Fire added strength in the final third.

In addition, players like Wyatt Omsberg, Gastón Giménez, and Miguel Navarro have improved upon their performances with the Fire from recent years.

Arguably, though, the biggest impact to the Fire has been the hire of Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson, who became an MLS Head Coach for the first time when Georg Heitz hired him this past offseason.

Hendrickson, however, has seemed anything but inexperienced in his new role. His time as an assistant coach under the likes of Caleb Porter and Sigi Schmid, and a head coach in the USL, has provided him with clarity on how he wants to lead his Fire team.

Through that clarity, Hendrickson has made a concerted effort to embrace the foundations set during the club’s glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, something that none of his predecessors have thought to do.

“There are three key values this organization and all these supporters hold sacred,” Hendrickson said after the 0-0 draw in the home opener against Orlando City. “Tradition, honor, and passion.”

That Tradition. Honor. Passion. mantra was born in the midst of the Fire's most successful period, one that saw the club win six trophies during its first nine years of existence.

While Hendrickson never coached or played for the Fire until this season, nobody within the organization seems surprised he has decided to embrace the club's past.

“Ezra has been around a long time,” Fire assistant coach, and former Fire player and head coach, Frank Klopas said. “He has seen those Fire teams from the beginning. He saw what they represented and what they stood for.”

The Origin Story

When trying to find the origin of that Tradition. Honor. Passion mantra, one name kept coming up: Liam Murtaugh. But, Murtaugh was quick to highlight the effort came from across Fire supporter groups.

"It was certainly a collaborative effort," Murtaugh said. "I can't take full credit."

Murtaugh, who went on to design the logos for the Chicago Red Stars and Chicago House, explained the reason for the creation of the mantra.

The Fire had just lost 5-2 in the the first leg of their 2004 CONCACAF Champion's League quarterfinal matchup in Costa Rica. As they prepared for the return leg at Soldier Field, Murtaugh and his fellow supporters were looking for a simple message to send to the players.

“We wanted to make a message to give to the team before the game,” Murtaugh said. "To inspire them, to overcome the deficit they faced."

The Fire embraced it and erased the deficit, beating San Juan Jabloteh 4-0 and advancing 6-5 on aggregate.

The club adopted Murtaugh’s creation, which was quickly woven into the fabric of the club’s ethos.

“[That mantra] reflected who we were,” Peter Wilt, the club’s first General Manager and President, said. “Another word I would use is pride. We were very proud of what we did and how we did it.”

So, how did those early Fire teams exactly do it? “It’s easy,” Wilt said sarcastically. “Just bring in a bunch of talented, hard-working people with good character.”

While certainly not easy, that is exactly what happened during those early days at Soldier Field. “We built a good culture both on the team side and on the front office side,” Wilt said. “That happens with good people.”

A Proven Formula

Wilt went on to give examples of some of those talented, hard-working people he mentioned. While he did, parallels between the people brought into those early Fire teams and the ones brought into this present-day Fire organization become apparent.

“You could not have picked a better person to be the coach of the team,” Wilt said. He was referring to Bob Bradley, who won three trophies during his four seasons with the club, including the MLS-U.S. Open Cup double in 1998. “He brought the right mentality, intelligence, knowledge, and work ethic. It flowed from him on the team side.”

Knowledge and intelligence are certainly two words that come to mind when thinking of Ezra Hendrickson, who has played and coached in MLS for over 25 years.

“He’s worked under some really, really big-time coaches,” Fire assistant coach and former Fire player C.J. Brown said. “I feel like his experiences and the things he’s been through have only made him stronger. He didn’t just jump right into it. He’s come into the role with a very clear eye of what to expect.”

Wilt continued to highlight the good people he brought on board, this time focusing on the players themselves. “The selection of players was also really important...Piotr Novak. Great leader. Great mentality and work ethic. He set the example for everyone else.”

When thinking of a leader on this current Fire team, a couple players spring to mind. However, new signing Rafael Czichos comes to the forefront. The center-back has already grabbed the captain’s armband within his first few months in Chicago.

“Working with Rafa has been great,” said Wyatt Omsberg, who has developed an excellent center-back partnership with Czichos thus far. “He has so much experience in Europe and Germany, so I think when he came, he immediately shifted the mentality of the defense.”

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One could also look to the final third where the Kacper Przybylko and Xherdan Shaqiri signings have already paid dividends. Both combined to score three goals in the Fire’s recent 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City.

“You want to target guys who are leaders and have a winning mentality, guys that are great in the locker room,” Klopas said. “And we have that.”

Wilt continued his reflection of those first years with the Fire, highlighting the competitive, fighting spirit that developed within the club.

“Chris Armas used to say the training sessions were more challenging than the games. That culture of taking the competition so seriously. That’s what it was all about for us.”

Hendrickson and his players have referred to a similar “roll up your sleeves” mentality multiple times this season. It seems the entire club, from top to bottom, has bought in.

“We’re not the most flashy team, but the togetherness, camaraderie, and unity on this team, it’s going to [make it] hard to beat us,” Hendrickson said after his team’s victory over Kansas City. “Every man is out there fighting for each other… everybody has the same goal and mindset when we step on the pitch and that’s going to take us very far.”

Lastly, Wilt pointed to the success that former players and front office leaders of those early Fire teams went on to achieve. It serves as further proof that, more often than not, the Fire consistently brought in the right type of people.

Chris Armas managed in MLS and is now an assistant at Manchester United. Jesse Marsch has managed all over Europe and is now the manager of Leeds United. Steve Pastorino, the assistant general manager for the Fire from 1997-2004, went onto become the first general manager in the history of Real Salt Lake.

That said, you don’t have to look around the world to find those successful Fire alumni. Three of them currently work for the club.

Both Brown and Klopas are on Hendrickson’s staff, with Brown just joining this past offseason. And Evan Whitfield, who played for the Fire from 1999-2004, joined the club as it’s Vice President of Equity, Alumni Relations, and Engagement this past offseason.

All three won trophies in Chicago and were instrumental in developing the tradition, honor, and passion Hendrickson now leans on as he aims to re-build the club.

“We want to get the club back to its glory days so to speak,” Hendrickson said. “So what better way to embrace that mantra for the club and having guys here who were there during those times, who feel those words to their heart.”

Connecting the Past, Present, and Future

When Murtaugh and fellow supporters developed the Tradition. Honor. Passion. mantra, the club was beginning to enter a period of transition.

Some players from those original teams, as well as Peter Wilt, were about to head out the door. So, it was important to develop a message that would help ease the transformation to come and provide consistency moving forward.

"We wanted to find a very direct, very simple message that described what had come and what we hoped would come with this club," Murtaugh said. "We wanted to bridge the early years to the future teams."

Instead, new ownership went out of their way to ignore the club's early successes, breaking the culture of the club into pieces.

The result? No trophies since 2006 and current leadership needing to pick up those pieces over 15 years later.

While Hendrickson has been the most vocal about embracing the Tradition. Honor. Passion mantra, many have noted that the club’s transformation started when owner Joe Mansueto bought the team in 2019.

“You’ve seen the direction of the club since Joe has taken over,” Klopas said. “I think we’re on the right track [with him].”

Peter Wilt added he has both heard the right words from and seen positive, actionable steps taken by the current leadership.

“[Leadership] has done some good things,” Wilt said. “They included the fans and the public in bringing a new logo forward. That was a throwback to the way we used to do things in the old days… I was proud and excited to be part of the opening game ceremonies [before the home opener]. That was really cool. So kudos to the new ownership and management for taking a different path and embracing the past. It’s a total 180 degree turn from past ownership.”

While it is obvious the Fire have begun to head in the right direction in the Mansueto era, the last two years – the first two under Mansueto’s ownership – have not resulted in consistent on-field performances.

It is only until this season that the level of on-field play has seen significant improvement. Is it a coincidence the wins are coming just as Hendrickson is beginning to grab hold of the roots forged from the club's origins? Perhaps. Only time will tell.

It is, however, obvious that the strategy current leadership has taken up seems to make almost too much sense.

“When you have a foundation and tradition as rich as the Fire’s, it makes sense to emphasize it,” Evan Whitfield said. “Hitting our 25th anniversary as a club, it feels natural to reflect on what the club has done in its first 25 years. That ethos of tradition, honor, and passion quickly comes to the forefront.”

C.J. Brown echoed Whitfield’s sentiment.

“You know, I was always wondering how [Hendrickson found out about Tradition. Honor. Passion]. What made him want to go that route? And I’ll tell you right now, it’s the best way to go. It’s the first coach since I’ve been gone that has ever spoken about that.”

It will be interesting to see if the strategy pays off. For now, Fire fans, players, and leadership are simply enjoying the positive start to this 2022 season.

“It’s a collaborative effort throughout this organization as far as what it’s going to take to get this club back to where it once was,” Hendrickson said. “And I think that foundation, re-establishing that foundation, those values, was a very good first step and the players are buying into it.”

Long may the good times continue.