Draft-day shakeup leaves “unpredictable” Fire with new look and work still to do

Starting off his post-SuperDraft media session, a reporter remarked to Nelson Rodríguez that he seemed to enjoy the annual event which, for the third time in three years under his watch, was a very active one for the Fire.

Rodríguez paused and confirmed with a smile and a simple, “I do.”

“I think it’s an important moment for the league,” the Fire GM explained. “So many teams have been dark for so long, it’s a good launchpad into the season and it’s obviously a good place to conduct business, it’s a lot easier when you’re face to face.”

Rodríguez conducted plenty of business Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, moving the Fire out of their 15th position in the draft order by trading into the top-10 not once, but twice. Simultaneously, Rodríguez pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that had gained steam in recent days, sending Designated Player David Accam to the Philadelphia Union in exchange for $1.2 million in combined General and Targeted Allocation Money.

“There’s an element of risk to the trade,” Rodríguez said of sending Accam, who enjoyed his best season in Chicago in 2017 with 14 goals and eight assists, to a fellow Eastern Conference foe. “David is a quality player, he’s still in the prime of his career. But we set out to build a championship program, we believe in what’s required to fulfill that, we think the next evolution of what we’re trying to build required a bold move. These assets that we’ve acquired give us an opportunity to accelerate toward our goal, but as I said, that production won’t be easy to replace, but we did what we felt was necessary.”

Veljko Paunovic shared a similar message, telling reporters that building an “unpredictable” or versatile style of play sometimes results in unpredicatable moves off the field.

“We believe that David did very well and I want to personally thank him for everything he did for our team,” he said Friday, “and for the relationship we had and how we handled difficult moments, especially the first year (in 2016). We also believe that to get to the next level of how we will play and what a championship team has to look like, that was the right decision to make.”

While Rodríguez is likely to eye targets outside of MLS to add the necessary attacking pieces — he cited three unnamed international players the club is actively pursuing — he also took aggressive steps to leverage the SuperDraft as a source of quality depth and young talent.

The first step came in the form of forward Jon Bakero, the Wake Forest standout who in December took home the 2017 MAC Hermann Trophy Award as NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most outstanding performer. Born in Sitges, Spain, Bakero is the son of longtime FC Barcelona and Spanish national team midfielder José Mari Bakero and recorded an impressive 37 goals with 26 assists in 88 games played over four years at Wake Forest.

“We feel Jon Bakero will fit in really well with our style and what we’re looking to do, and also give us some versatility,” Rodríguez said, “as we feel he can play underneath Nemanja (Nikolic) or alongside Nemanja. He’s mobile so he can slide outside and then come inside.”

Acquiring the No. 5 pick to secure Bakero meant packaging $175,000 in allocation funds and goalkeeper Matt Lampson to Minnesota United FC. Five picks later, the Fire sent another sum of $85,000 to Real Salt Lake to score Syracuse midfielder and English international Mo Adams, who departed the collegiate game after his sophomore season.

“In Mo Adams, we think we got a bull terrier, we think we got a player who’s a fantastic recoverer of the ball, and both young men,” Rodríguez said of his two top-10 selections, “love and breathe football, which is very important to us.”

Add in Costa Rican-born Diego Campos, the Clemson product selected by Chicago late in the second round, and the Fire closed an eventful day of transactions — indeed, an eventful week, given the confirmation of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return in 2018 and the acquisition of promising young defender Rafael Ramos — that will only prompt further intrigue and excitement as the squad, which Rodríguez admitted is at this point “incomplete,” continues to take shape into the start of preseason on Monday.

“Once this Draft is over, I can’t wait just to get in the locker room with our staff, with our guys, our players to start to work on what is our third year, which we want to be the most successful so far,” Paunovic said. “We will for sure do our best to prepare the team to compete during the preseason. We want to be the team that we were before that game in the playoffs last year and we’ll continue to improve in order to achieve our goal of being a championship team.”