Wicky, Heitz have obstacles to overcome for Chicago Fire
Raphael Wicky could have chosen to stay with U.S. Soccer, an organization by most accounts in disarray.
Instead he chose to become the coach of the Chicago Fire, a club that just completed a miserable decade and seemed intent much of this off-season on taking another step backward.
Maybe with this hire, as well as new sporting director Georg Heitz, the Fire is signaling it's finally ready to move forward. Their backgrounds suggest reason for hope, but don't get too excited either.
In taking over the Fire, Heitz and Wicky assume responsibility for a club that hasn't won a playoff game since 2009 and only made the playoffs twice since then, scoring one playoff goal along the way.
Yet the Fire increased the degree of difficulty for its new soccer leadership by waiting until nearly Christmas to hire Heitz and until Friday to add Wicky.
The new hires, both Swiss, find themselves in charge of a roster of just 17 players. Probably three of them will go out on loan or stay with the academy rather than play for the first team. Heitz and Wicky might want to move some of those who remain.
They will need to call on their connections to fill the roster and do so quickly. None of the three designated players spots is filled, and captain Dax McCarty was traded in November.
Preseason training starts Jan. 18. The Fire opens the regular season March 1 at Seattle. The club hasn't left them much time to build an effective roster, or, perhaps more importantly, a new culture for an organization badly in need of one.
Unlike Heitz, Wicky, 42, has a sliver of experience in MLS and with American players. His coaching background is thin, however, as is his experience with the league and its unique and complicated roster rules.
That could be a problem. Coaches and personnel men without MLS experience haven't fared well in MLS over the years.
Heitz and Wicky worked together at FC Basel, where Wicky climbed through the youth ranks before becoming coach of the first team for the 2017-18 season. That season ended in disappointment for Basel. Wicky played briefly in MLS at Chivas USA.
"I know Raphael very well from our time together at FC Basel in Switzerland," Heitz said in a Fire news release. "He is a man of high character who fits the philosophy and vision of this club. He has a fresh, modern approach to football. Raphael has a great appreciation and respect for the sport and because of his time on the pitch, including representing his country at a World Cup, he is able to communicate extremely well with players."
Wicky was hired as the U.S. U-17 coach last March. The team earned a berth in the U-17 World Cup but played poorly there and didn't advance. Still, some in the soccer world are cautiously optimistic about Wicky and Heitz.
Meanwhile, the Fire is moving back to Soldier Field this season, aiming to fill the 61,500-seat stadium with a club that averaged a league-low 12,324 fans a game last year. And since the 2019 season ended the club has rolled out a rebrand that only seemed to aggravate those fans who remain.
Heitz and Wicky have a tough job ahead of them. All the Fire needs them to do is overcome these obstacles to produce a team that will put bodies in those Soldier Field seats so the place doesn't look and sound too empty.