There's a new team in crisis in MLS.
That's the implication, anyway, with the news on Sunday that not only has Frank Yallop and most of his coaching staff been fired by the Chicago Fire, but also that Nelson Rodriguez has been appointed general manager at the club, starting next month.
The same Nelson Rodriguez, of course, who ran Chivas USA last year after the league bought the club from Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes and shepherded the lame duck franchise before it was shut down the day after the end of the 2014 regular season.
As a result, the move immediately strikes as one in which MLS has said "Enough" after letting the Fire die on the vine for too long. What remains of the fanbase of a once-successful club have waged a season-long campaign against owner Andrew Hauptman, totally bypassing the ineffectual Yallop, who seems like MLS has totally passed him by.
And it's clear that the problems don't start and end with the coach. The Fire, who are one of the most decorated MLS teams, with an MLS Cup, a Supporters' Shield and four U.S. Open Cup trophies (plus a slew of second-place finishes in those competitions), have failed to make the playoffs for four of the last five seasons (and that one season, 2012, they got knocked out after a one-game elimination game), and they won't make the playoffs this season, either.
Sports fans in Chicagoland love their teams, and interest in the Fire has dwindled year over year of late as a result of the poor results. Sound familiar?
There's no indication publicly that Rodriguez was brought in at the behest of MLS, but that's the implication, even if not factually correct. Rodriguez had been an executive at the league office before being tapped to run CUSA, and although he had been working as a de facto "guidance counselor" to youth internationals for U.S. Soccer since his job was eliminated, he did not hurt his profile in MLS at all as a result of running the Goats.
That's where the real intrigue of this move comes in. Rodriguez was president of Chivas, but has been appointed GM of the Fire. It seemed like with Chivas, Wilmer Cabrera took care of the player personnel decisions, although no one in the shorthanded organization held a general manager/soccer operations title. So it's possible Rodriguez played a big role in crafting CUSA's roster on a shoestring budget, which could come in handy with an organization that does not appear capable of outspending the pack in Chicago. And he did have some experience on the player personnel side for the MetroStars, but that was before the 21st century -- some things stay the same, but MLS has changed a lot since 1999.
For Rodriguez, joining the Fire means the margin for error for him is changing substantially since his last MLS job. With Chivas, there was no real expectation. The league assumed full control of the team very shortly before the season began, and while there were immediate questions about what he could do to revive the club's prospects, the fate of Chivas USA meant all he ultimately had to do was pay the bills, do the literal bare minimum (something the Vergara regime struggled at, it must be said), and play out the string of games. He did a bit more than that, ensuring Erick Torres stayed in MLS by picking up the option on his loan and bringing in players throughout the season, albeit players available through trade or on free transfers.
But he was a caretaker. His hands were tied, to be sure, and he didn't have a lot of leeway to do things like actually market CUSA properly or make any plans for the future. The same certainly cannot be said of the Chicago Fire.
So it's going to be a big jump up in order to maintain his high reputation in a job where he'll need to do normal MLS executive tasks, not simply keep a franchise afloat in order to prevent it from ending on a moment's notice.
And for the Fire? Again, it's hard to say if the league literally stepped in and brought "their guy" aboard to save perhaps the club in the worst shape at the moment. But that's how it looks. And to prevent further crises in Illinois, the club and league will have to hope they can turn matters around in pretty short order or risk greater instability down the line.
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