By Mike Rice.
This week started with two head coaches leaving their roles in Major League Soccer. Ezra Hendrickson was fired by the Chicago Fire just 10 games into his second season as head coach, while Gerhard Struber mutually parted ways with New York Red Bulls.
Both sides sit in the bottom two places in the Eastern Conference, with the New York Red Bulls bottom on nine points from 11 games and Chicago Fire just above them on 11 points from 10 games.
With just under a third of the season played, these have been the first moves this season for clubs looking to turn things around with new leadership, but why have these decisions been made and what does it mean for the clubs?
What’s important to first mention is that Chicago Fire are just one win away from a playoff place. With the expanded format and a play-in game for the eighth and ninth-place teams in the conference, Chicago are just three points off four teams’ level on points from Columbus Crew in ninth, down to Orlando City in ninth.
Hendrickson had some big changes over the off-season after losing goalkeeper Gaga Slonina permanently to Chelsea and forward Jhon Durán for $18m to Aston Villa. Though they were both young players, they became key to Chicago Fire last season.
Slonina has been replaced by Chris Brady, another young goalkeeper who, at 19 years old, is making some mistakes as he adapts, though has shown in his performances why there is a lot of belief in him from the team.
Durán was the player to make them dangerous in the final third and be the goal threat towards the end of the season once he finally broke into the side.
The big-money acquisition of Xherdan Shaqiri has been a bust for the team though. The second-highest paid player in MLS, he has been ineffective and has far from lived up to expectations. Six goals and seven assists last season in 29 games, this year he has no goals or assists from six matches and has found himself outplayed by 19-year-old academy product Brian Gutiérrez.
For Hendrickson, the roster he was able to build was limited with his Designated Players, Shaqiri and Jairo Torres, not being of the level they should be bringing for what they cost.
His side have also thrown points away in late periods of games. Against New York Red Bulls they conceded an 89th-minute equaliser, against Atlanta United a 99th-minute own goal meant they lost 2-1, and after leading 2-0 at home the Philadelphia they conceded twice in two minutes in the second half.
Their mentality and game management has been called into question and the 3-0 defeat in Nashville was Hendrickson’s last game which saw them give up 30 shots to the home side and two penalties while managing just five shots themselves.
While they have shown flashes of quality, with some good young players, Chicago Fire decided that Hendrickson was not the man to take them further and while still well in the hunt for those playoff places, a change now could be vital to saving their season.
Assistant Frank Klopas will take over the side now for the third time, having done so in 2011-2013 and to close out the 2021 season when Raphael Wicky departed. He has been given the rest of the season to make his case for a permanent contract.
His key task will be developing a stronger game model which can be effective throughout the full game and help his young players control and stay fully focused throughout to keep hold of the wins or draws they are earning late in games.
New York Red Bulls
This has been one hell of a season already for the Red Bulls, with the suspension of new Designated Player Dante Vanzeir for admitting to using racist terms towards an opponent, Struber gained criticism for allowing Vanzeir to continue the rest of the game.
#RBNY head of sport Jochen Schneider now addressing media in the wake of coach Gerhard Struber’s exit.
Asked whether the April incident sparked by Dante Vanzeir’s racist language was a factor in the move, he responds: “I can say no, otherwise we would have taken it immediately”
— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) May 8, 2023
Red Bulls were quick to state this wasn’t a reason for the departure, though, as the red half of New York sit bottom of the Eastern Conference with one win from 11.
There hasn’t been a huge turnover with the team, with Aaron Long being the key departure to Los Angeles FC. Former DP Patryk Klimala departed and Vanzeir was brought in, though was off to a slow start before his suspension.
Elias Manoel’s loan was made permanent, and Cory Burke was brought in up front to build depth in attack but otherwise, the team stayed pretty stable.
Creating chances has been an issue, with John Tolkin the only player to register an assist for the team so far, he has four, and Red Bulls have only managed seven goals in total.
Their system and style of play appear to have been sussed out by many sides in MLS, and their rigidity to it and inability or unwillingness to adapt to games have made it difficult for them to register more than one win.
Without being able to control games, their huge depth in certain areas like the middle of midfield, but lack of depth in creative roles, has meant they have become too predictable. With Lewis Morgan being unavailable through injury they have lost so much from the attacking midfield players who are not contributing anywhere near how the Scottish forward had been before injury.
While it appears clear that the Red Bulls aren’t going to change from their philosophy of play, a fresh face and approach seemed necessary, especially with the off-field issues as well.
Troy Lesesne has taken over until the end of the season and the former USL Coach of the Year with New Mexico United will have the chance to impress. He joined Red Bulls in 2022 as an assistant coach and now has the opportunity to step up and help his side continue their impressive streak of reaching the playoffs every year since 2009.