Nelson Rodriguez officially began work as the Fire’s new General Manager this past Monday. One of his foremost tasks, among a laundry list of the things to do in order to reverse the club’s fortunes on the pitch, is identifying and hiring the team’s newest head coach. Rodriguez was named as GM on September 20 so he’s had a month to prepare and begin compiling names while finishing up business for US Soccer.
It didn’t take long for speculation to arise regarding former Mexico head coach Miguel Herrera, who fanned the rumor mill himself by saying that he would listen if indeed the Fire were interested. In an interview last month Herrera indicated that no offer had been made and he had yet to even be contacted by Chicago or MLS.
With Fire owner Andrew Hauptman possibly looking to make a splash and generate some excitement around a team that is slipping further into the background of the local and national soccer landscape, Herrera is a name that is likely to be on Rodriguez’s list of potential candidates. Sources have indicated that Rodriguez has begun to explore the possibility and contacted Herrera’s representatives to gauge interest while in Mexico recently.
The former Club America manager would certainly place a big name on the sidelines, but a big personality that is unfamiliar with the inner workings of MLS comes along with that recognition. Hiring Herrera would set off some fireworks but could be a volatile match leading to a short stay for an organization that needs to build stability for a change. He would be entertaining and bring some attention and excitement to the club but he’ll have offers from teams in Mexico as soon as Liga MX allows in December. Herrera is likely to want to hear those offers and the Fire probably want to have a coach in place before then in order to begin making roster decisions. He may already have a seven figure offer coming from Xolos if reports in Mexico are to be believed.
If not Herrera, then who?
Fire Confidential has compiled a list of the potential candidates. There are some familiar names that are sure to pique the interest of supporters even if they lack the big name attention that Herrera would bring.
Chris Armas – The Fire legend, former captain, and Ring of Fire member is well respected by players and coaches alike. Following his retirement in 2007, Armas served as an assistant coach under Denis Hamlett during the 2008 season. He departed citing personal reasons and a desire to move back to the New York area although rumors persist that he wasn’t enamored with the front office during that one season. Upon returning to the his home state, he taught physical education at his high school alma mater and took over the region's USSF U-16 team.
His head coaching experience also entails a stint with his college alma mater, Adelphi University. While there he guided the women’s varsity team to back-to-back conference title games in the NE-10, and reached the ECAC championship in 2014.
He joined Hamlett on Jesse Marsch's Red Bulls coaching staff this past February. They have guided a NYRB squad with one of the lowest payrolls in MLS to the top of the Eastern Conference and a chance at the Supporter’s Shield this weekend.
His connection to Rodriguez comes via his post playing days involvement with the MLS Disciplinary Committee. As the Executive Vice President of Competition, Technical, and Game Operations, Rodriguez was in charge of the MLSDisco from inception in 2012. Armas was one of three former players nominated by the MLS Player’s Union to serve on the committee.
As a player, he seemed like an individual that was destined to coach at some point but the Fire may be looking for a little more experience in the lead role at a professional level. Very few fans would be upset if Armas was named the man in charge on the sidelines however.
Brian Bliss – The attitude and feeling in the locker room has apparently improved under Bliss as interim coach but the results have not. He’s expressed interest in vacating his role as Technical Director in order to stay on the bench and has indicated that he would target more South American players as opposed to the Euro-centric additions that Yallop favored if he stays on for next season. Bliss is competent and capable but his ties to the trainwreck of the last two seasons won’t excite many. If the Fire want to make a splash, Bliss isn’t the guy but if Rodriguez is looking for a league veteran versed in the sometimes ridiculous inner workings of MLS roster manipulation, he wouldn’t be a bad choice.
After serving as interim coach in Kansas City and Columbus before taking over for the close of the Chicago season, Bliss is a candidate that probably has an MLS head coaching spot coming at some point. If it’s here, Rodriguez will need to find a new Technical Director. That may be the case regardless, if he’s looking to start fresh with his own staff in 2016.
His more hands on approach with players during training sessions is a contrast to Yallop’s method of managing but is it enough to get him more than a look at the permanent job?
Brad Friedel – Since retiring as a player following the 2014-15 EPL season, Friedel has surfaced as a pundit providing commentary for several networks. He’s now looking at coaching in MLS. He doesn't have a natural link to Rodriguez despite his service with US Soccer but sources indicate that there is mutual interest and his name is on the list of potential hires to be interviewed.
His contacts and connections within the Premier League would hopefully gain the Fire an advantage in the DP game and possibly finding younger players looking for minutes, but the obvious drawback would be his lack of experience as a coach.
As the fourth most capped goalkeeper in USMNT history he would also draw some attention on the national level. Would he move the needle locally? How quickly can he adopt a Chicago accent?
Jason Kreis - If rumors are to be believed, Kries is on the outs at New York City FC after failing to qualify for the playoffs in the first year of the expansion team's existence. Of course he's still under contract so this one is pure speculation. If he's available, one would have to think that any MLS club with a vacancy would make him a leading candidate for 2016.
It could also lead to another homecoming for assistant coach CJ Brown, who departed from the Fire last offseason.
Tab Ramos – Almost automatically linked to Rodriguez via US Soccer. He also played with the MetroStars while Rodriguez was the team’s Director of Soccer Operations. As the current coach of the US U-20 team, he led them to the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship game and the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup. His team lost to eventual champ Serbia in the U-20 World Cup Quarterfinals this past summer.
He’s also currently an assistant for Jurgen Klinsmann and the senior team.
Sources have told Fire Confidential that he was approached about the Chicago job earlier this summer although the Fire deny that contact had been made. His coaching experience has been limited to the US Soccer program and a New Jersey based US Development Academy side.
He’s one candidate whose name keeps surfacing in connection to Chicago and is surely on Rodriguez’s list this fall. He's probably the early odds-on leader at this point.
Larry Sunderland – A dark horse in the coaching race, but maybe he shouldn’t be. When rumors started swirling about a coaching change in late June and early July, Sunderland was mentioned by some as a possible interim replacement. If the Fire are looking to promote from within, they couldn't do any better than elevating Sunderland, who has been around the club for more than a decade, starting with the Chicago Fire Juniors before joining as Academy Director and PDL coach in 2007.
Under his direction, the Chicago Fire Academy has produced the likes of current Homegrown players Harry Shipp, Patrick Doody, Chris Ritter and Collin Fernandez and found success on the field as well, by winning two National Championships (the U-16s in 2010 and U-18s in 2015). With Sunderland at the helm, the Fire Academy has gained a reputation as one of the top programs in the USSDA. Sunderland also coached the Fire Super-20 Team to a National Championship in 2008 and the PDL team to a Finals appearance in 2009, with those teams featuring the likes of current Fire players Michael Stephens, Eric Gehrig, Tim Ream, Seth Sinovic and Justin Morrow, among others.
While Sunderland’s experience is heavy on the player development side, he did serve as an assistant coach with the first team under Carlos de los Cobos and Frank Klopas in 2010 and 2011. He also wouldn’t be the first coach in MLS to be elevated to the head coaching role after holding an Academy position. After guiding the TFC Academy, Greg Vanney took the reins in Toronto last season and former Fire defender Jim Curtin began in the Philadelphia Union Academy before being elevated to an assistant coach and eventually head coach in 2014. Current FC Dallas coach Oscar Pareja also went from their Academy system to coaching the Colorado Rapids before coming back to FCD.
Though he was a successful indoor player, most notably winning a 1990 championship with the Chicago Power, Sunderland is from a different era and doesn’t have the MLS playing experience that Vanney, Curtin, or Pareja hold. With a history of player development and winning, he appears qualified for the next step, but he faces the same problem that Bliss and Ramos face if the Fire are looking to make a splash and excite the masses with a name.
Eric Wynalda – The Fox Soccer tv analyst and former Fire player is a popular choice among supporters but he’s recently taken on another gig with a radio show on SiriusXM. He’s gone back and forth about his desire to manage recently and it seems he’s taken himself out of coaching consideration for now. Coaching stints with Cal FC and the Atlanta Silverbacks haven’t led to MLS sideline offers but he does have a cordial relationship with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman.
At this point Wynalda would be a long shot in the race.