Exclusive: Fire GM Rodriguez on his 'dream job' challenge

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Nelson Rodriguez assumed his duties as the Chicago Fire's new general manager on Monday. "I want to build a new paradigm of MLS soccer clubs," he says. "I want to build a dynasty."

    Nelson Rodriguez assumed his duties as the Chicago Fire's new general manager on Monday. "I want to build a new paradigm of MLS soccer clubs," he says. "I want to build a dynasty." Photo courtesy of the Chicago Fire

 
 
Updated 10/23/2015 5:59 PM

The Chicago Fire's hiring of Nelson Rodriguez as general manager drew praise from many influential soccer people, and the reason becomes clear after meeting him.

Rodriguez comes across as a thoughtful, well-prepared person with more than a decade of experience working in MLS and great knowledge of sports in general. Having grown up in New Jersey with a father who was a club coach and referee, he seems humble with a strong sense of humor. And that's all part of why sources called him a "shooting star" in the MLS.

 

The Rodriguez hire was announced on Sept. 20, the same day the club dismissed coach and director of soccer Frank Yallop. Monday was Rodriguez's first official day on what he called his "dream job."

The following are excerpts from a wide-ranging exclusive interview Thursday with the Daily Herald.

On whether the Fire requires a full-scale turnaround:

"It's hard not to categorize it as requiring a turnaround. When you fail to make the playoffs five out of six years, it's not befitting Chicago sports culture. It's not befitting Chicago Fire history and tradition. I have said this to a few folks, I consider the Fire one of the three great clubs in MLS history with the Galaxy and D.C. United. So yeah, we have to turn it around, but whether that means overhaul or not, that's too premature for me to say. There are clearly enough good pieces to believe that we can have improved success in short order."

On whether he sees himself as a turnaround specialist:

"I guess some of that is related to my one season at Chivas USA (MLS bought out the club, installed Rodriguez as president and then shut it down after the 2014 season; a new club will be constituted as Los Angeles FC). That was a very, very difficult job. Much harder than I realized in taking it. I'm proud of some of the things we were able to achieve there, which was an incredibly improved bottom line and obvious improvement on the field of play.

"Am I the turnaround guy? I don't know. I'll leave that for others to judge when my time with the Fire is over, which I hope is a long time from today."

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Why join the Fire?

"I really believe that this is my dream job. I really think for my whole life, even as a little kid, I, like every other kid, dreamed of scoring the winning goal or hitting the winning home run. The buzzer-beating shot. Somewhere in me I knew that athletically I was limited, so I always really dreamed of being the architect of a dynasty. I always tried to study what I call great programs. Duke basketball. Alabama football. San Antonio Spurs of the last 20 years. New England Patriots over the last 20 years. The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs 24 straight years. I've always tried to study how, why, what is it about them. Why up until recently were the (Los Angeles) Clippers the opposite of that so I could learn from a lack of success as well.

" ... This is a dream. This is a great sports town. This is a great city. There are great fans, Fire fans in particular to me are impressive through their loyalty and devotion. For me it would be special to give them something that makes them proud and restores the glory."

On the timeline for hiring a new coach:

"Ideally I would love for us to have someone secured before Thanksgiving. I want the search to be expansive enough to believe that we had a really good representative pool. Having said that, if we believe that we've found the right person, when we find him and we believe that we've pressured-tested him against a few other worthy candidates, there's no need to wait. Let's lock it down and move forward."

On his contingencies plan:

"I keep a list, and not just of coaches. I keep a list of press officers. I keep a list of potential academy coaches, academy directors. I keep a list of folks who I think could be team administrators. I always kept a list of people who impressed me, of people who I thought I would work well with or people that I thought I did work well with who I would say, man, it would be great to work together at a team with you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"What I would also caution, though, is there could be outstanding coaches, but they might not be right for us or for what I believe we need today."

On the resources and latitude to get the job done:

"When I was at the league office I had a lot of opportunities to interact with (Fire owner Andrew Hauptman) and ownership, and the things that always struck me first was, he's a gentleman. Which is really important to me. ... I find Andrew Hauptman to be an incredible person. He's very generous, very giving, very loyal, very patient, very smart. Those are qualities that I admire in a person.

"Again I'm surprised because I look at the history of the spend. Top third, top quarter, so I see no shortage of resources that have been invested. In my conversations I haven't had a sense that there is a limitation.

"I think the limitation -- and I expect this and want to work within these constructs -- it's my job to develop a program and a plan and sell it in and then execute against it. And I worked at Major League Soccer for enough years to also know that you can't nor should you get everything you want the first time. There needs to be an order and a process to things. So I come here and all I see is fantastic opportunity."

On his power and goals:

"I believe that I have the necessary mechanisms and authorities to make the decisions on the soccer side as I see fit. Like any other business you always work within life cycles and budgets and strategic plans. What excites me is I get to construct those and I get to argue for those and I get to work for those.

"What I want the fans to understand is building a program is more than the 30 guys on the field. There's a lot more to it than that if you want to build something sustainable. And that is what I want. I want to build a new paradigm of MLS soccer clubs. I want to build a dynasty. There's some other teams that want to be the first to so many stars on their chest. Well, I want to be the first to 10. And I want to be a part of those nine that we need to get there."

On needing a big-name designated player:

"What I believe the club needs in the immediate is to win. I think our fans deserve it. I actually think Andrew deserves it. I think the city deserves it. We're in a period in Chicago when the Blackhawks are the kings of the NHL. The Cubs have recaptured the imagination of the baseball fan and the casual sports fan in Chicago. Chicago's history is rich with great clubs and legendary players with the Bears and the Bulls and the White Sox have had their moments. We need to win.

"I don't put that on one guy or a name. Again, I think a program outlives an individual or a star. Once we have the coach we'll do a full assessment with that coach of our current personnel and make determinations if we need to make changes and where those changes need to be made."

On the Fire Academy:

"The Fire Academy has a great reputation, and that I know from before coming here. That I know from speaking to people around the league and being around the league office, and I would always ask questions. Who is doing it well? I also think that we can see that in some of the players who have been signed and ascended to the first team. Collin (Fernandez, a midfielder from Downers Grove signed to the first team a year ago) is a player that we have great hopes for and who has been in the U.S. Soccer national team's pool at younger ages.

" ... I believe that the connection to the first team can and should be still even better, and I have some ideas on how we can do that. I can dream of a day where on the Fire first team is a core of players who came through our system."

Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz

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