What will Chicago do with top MLS SuperDraft pick?

BY Kyle McCarthy • January 13, 2016


Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez illustrates the predicament in stark, passionate terms.

After finishing at the bottom of the league last year, the Fire is looking up at the rest of MLS heading into 2016. He quickly notes the exception to that harsh reality, though: Everyone -- at least for the moment -- is looking up at Chicago in the MLS SuperDraft.

The top pick in the SuperDraft constitutes a high-profile opportunity to improve a team in need of players in every department. It is not a panacea, but it is a valuable component for a nascent regime trying to rebuild brick by brick.

Rodriguez, coach Veljko Paunovic and the rest of the Fire technical staff have spent the past few days poring over reports, watching the MLS Player Combine and weighing potential offers to move off their perch. The objective -- in whatever form it eventually takes -- is straightforward in the end.

“It sounds simplistic, but it’s coming out of Thursday afternoon having known that we improved our team,” Rodriguez told FOX Soccer during the MLS Player Combine. “We know for sure with the number one pick that we’ll be better. The question now becomes how much better. Are there opportunities -- in our estimation -- to accelerate or multiply? That’s how we look at it. The draft is an important piece of it. It is interrelated to all of the other things we’re doing with the recruitment of other players.”

Paunovic and Rodriguez established their common ground during the hiring process. Their shared principles -- the desire to cultivate an adaptable, winning style, the need to pursue players capable of fitting into the ethos on and off the field, the willingness to proceed with diligence -- made them natural partners. It is why Rodriguez chose former Philadelphia Union midfielder Paunovic over several other candidates during his coaching search. And it is why the early stages of their regime have proceeded with some caution after a postseason purge left the roster with just 14 players under contract.

There are players en route (including one European center back and a couple of MLS free agents) to boost the numbers before the start of preseason, but there is also a lot of work ahead. There are few pieces already in place -- David Accam, Gilberto, Sean Johnson, Joevin Jones, Matt Polster and Harry Shipp are the most prominent holdovers -- and plenty of holes to fill.

The deliberate approach to squad building prompts criticism in some quarters -- particularly from a beleaguered fan base frustrated with the club, its direction under investor/operator Andrew Hauptman and its lack of success over the past few years -- with preseason right around the corner, but it stems from a desire to carry out the proper background work and reinforce the side judiciously, according to Rodriguez.

“We understand that our way isn’t sexy,” Rodriguez said. “We understand that to many people, it’s boring, or to many other people -- such as some agents -- it’s slow. We also understand that our emphasis on our process -- particularly with the evaluation of people and players -- is going to cost us opportunities. We accept that as part of the way we intend to do business. We’re comfortable with it because we think it gives us the best chance of success in the longer run.”

The degree of difficulty increases with the craving for adaptability. Paunovic speaks earnestly about the desire to cultivate a flexible team, the sort of outfit capable of adjusting to the demands of each game tactically and technically. Those aspirations make sense given his triumph with the Serbian under-20 side at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup this summer and his background as a creative, technical player, but they also complicate the search for players in a league where the most successful teams often focus on one style of play and stick with it through thick and thin.

Paunovic harbors no illusions about the amount of work required to implement his ideas. He admits it is likely to take more than a preseason to mold his squad into the side he imagines. It is why this SuperDraft -- whatever form it takes -- is an important piece of the puzzle to him.

“Right now, for everyone, it’s too early to give any kind of diagnosis, any kind of promises. We are working,” Paunovic said. “That’s the only thing we can say: work, work, work, work. What we are expecting is to give the best. In this draft, we expect to initiate the process of improving our team. It’s going to take steps. It’s going to take time. We are preparing. We are there. But we have to prepare.”

All of the groundwork places the Fire in a position of relative strength heading into the draft. The failures of the past provide flexibility in the present. The ability to stand pat and take the top choice on their draft board constitutes the straightforward option. The possibility of dealing the pick to one of the interested suitors -- Wake Forest midfielder Jack Harrison is a target for a couple of teams at this stage, according to multiple league sources -- and procuring allocation money, picks or players in the process supplies an opportunity to extract even more value for the number one slot.

The extent of the rebuilding process allows the Fire to adopt a pragmatic approach. The prospect of adding the number one pick is alluring, but the possibility of wielding that selection to procure more resources is enticing, too. Rodriguez expects plenty of discussions about the Fire’s position -- there were two offers tabled on Tuesday and one more at an earlier point, according to Rodriguez -- as the critical moment approaches. It is just a matter now of choosing the best path for the club moving forward.

“What I know is that come Thursday evening, we’ll have improved our team,” Rodriguez said. “That’s a nice thing to know. If you’re drafting lower, you may not have that security that we have.”

At this point, any step forward is welcome. The road back to the top is a long and arduous one. The hope in Chicago is that the SuperDraft -- in conjunction with other moves over the next few weeks -- can start the process of pushing the club along that path as the season approaches.

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