Major League Soccer

Chicago Fire making some striking changes

By ANNE M. PETERSON

AP Sports Writer

The Chicago Fire aren't just switching things up, the team is undergoing a full-blown makeover.

In an unusually busy offseason for Major League Soccer - with teams in Nashville and Miami preparing for inaugural seasons, expansion into St. Louis, Sacramento and Charlotte, and collective bargaining talks underway - the Fire are in the midst of a seismic shift.

There's a new owner, a new logo, a move back into the Windy City, a roster overhaul and a search for a new head coach and general manager. Owner Joe Mansueto has three goals for the Fire, which joined MLS in 1998: Win championships, build a world-class organization and connect with the community.

"It's a super exciting time to be part of the Fire, because it's somewhat of a clean slate," Mansueto said. "We get to kind of rebuild the club."

The Fire finished outside of the playoffs this season in eighth in the Eastern Conference. The team has not been to the postseason since 2017.

Mansueto, founder of the financial services company Morningstar Inc., took over the Fire in mid-September after longtime owner and chairman Andrew Hauptman sold him controlling interest in the team.

At the same time, the Fire announced plans to leave SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeport, Illinois, and return to Soldier Field, where the team played from 1997 to 2006. That deal was made official in early October.

While he was a fan, owning the Fire had additional appeal for Mansueto.

"It's a passion, it's something great that I can do for the city of Chicago. And then on top of all that, it should be a good investment," he said.

After some significant turnover, Chicago's roster stands at 17, fewer than the league's 18-player game day squad.

Bastian Schweinsteiger retired at the end of the season after three years with the Fire. It marked the end of an 18-year professional career for Schweinsteiger, who also played for Manchester United and Bayern Munich, and won a World Cup title with Germany.

"Saying goodbye as an active player makes me feel a little nostalgic, but I am also looking forward to the exciting challenges that await me soon," he wrote. "I will remain faithful to football."

Not long afterward, forward Nemanja Nikolic also announced he was leaving the team. Nikolic spent three seasons in Chicago and won the league's Golden Boot award in 2017 with 24 goals.

The team traded away veteran midfielder Dax McCarty to expansion Nashville for allocation money, after three seasons with the Fire.

But perhaps the biggest change came at the top. The Fire dismissed coach Veljko Paunovic and his staff. Paunovic went 41-58-37 over four seasons with the team.

Additionally, Nelson Rodriguez is shifting to the business side of the organization, so the Fire are looking for a new GM.

All this with less than 100 days until the start of the regular season.

"We don't have much time. We got to get going. So I think the sooner the better. So we're in the midst of that now," Mansueto said. "We are pushing it ahead as fast as we can on this. So the sooner the better, is the timetable."

The Fire also rebranded the club in a sweeping way - with new colors and a new logo. The team even changed its name from "Chicago Fire Soccer Club" to "Chicago Fire Football Club." Gold was introduced, along with blue and red.

A new crest is meant to symbolize both a crown and Chicago rising from the ashes of the great fire. The intentions were good: Chicago's badge had sometimes confusing similarities to the one used by the Chicago Fire Department.

But the rebrand did not go over well. Critics jumped on the color scheme as being too close to Real Salt Lake's. There were also concerns that the yellow crown could be associated with the Latin Kings, a violent Chicago gang.

Mansueto acknowledged the rough launch but urged patience.

"I think among the longer-term fans, we did see that negative reaction. The newer fans, less so. But having worked with logos and new logos, for a long time, it takes a while to judge a new logo. You need to see it used repeatedly. You need to see it get used in context," he said.

Asked if his management style was always so, well, zealous, Mansueto said it's his entrepreneurial spirit.

"So, I see something that needs to be done, I'm like, `Let's get started and get it done.' Chop wood, carry water, just get it done," he said. "I think that, yeah, that is my style. I don't like to be indecisive. I don't like to let things linger, but I like to take action once a decision is made."

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Updated December 17, 2019

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