If GM of the Year was a thing, Nelson Rodriguez would run away with the honor
Major League Soccer award season features a bevy of other honors, but there is one glaring omission: General Manager of the Year.
Unlike the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, MLS doesn’t honor its top sporting director. The league does have the Doug Hamilton Executive of the Year award, but that’s reserved for business execs and not voted on by media.
Hired in September 2015, Rodriguez has engineered a massive turnaround in Chicago. After finishing dead last in MLS in 2015 and 2016, the Fire ended 2017 with the league’s third-best regular-season record. The club will play its first playoff game in five years on Wednesday, when it hosts the New York Red Bulls in an Eastern Conference Knockout Round match at Toyota Park.
Despite the cupboard being almost completely bare when Rodriguez arrived a little over two years ago, the Fire is now a legitimately talented squad. Injuries might stop Chicago from making an MLS Cup run, but the team has Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, perpetual MLS difference-maker Dax McCarty, dynamic winger David Accam, stout center back Johan Kappelhof, promising young fullbacks Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent and a certain legendary German manning central midfield. Outside of Accam and Polster, all those players were acquired by Rodriguez, with Nikolic, McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining Chicago this season.
It took a serious infusion of cash for Chicago to sign Nikolic and Schweinsteiger. The Fire is paying the two Designated Players a combined $7.3 million in salary this year, according to the MLS Players’ Union, and reportedly sent a $3 million transfer fee to Legia Warsaw for Nikolic. Chicago has the fourth-largest payroll in the league, and that spending power shouldn’t be overlooked in any discussion of Rodriguez.
But his success is about more than extra investment by owner Andrew Hauptman. Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic still had to convince Nikolic and Schweinsteiger (above) to sign with a club that had been the league’s laughingstock. That takes more than just millions. It requires vision, persuasion and panache.
Rodriguez should also be applauded for getting Schweinsteiger from Manchester United to Chicago before the end of the Premier League season without having to pay a transfer fee. Schweinsteiger himself probably played a big role in that, but it’s not every year an MLS GM pulls one over on Jose Mourinho, who said he regretted the way he handled the German’s turbulent tenure at the club.
Nikolic and Schweinsteiger were the big money moves, but McCarty has been equally important to the Fire this year. Chicago acquired him in January in perhaps the most stunning move of the MLS offseason, sending $400,000 in General Allocation Money to New York in exchange for the 30-year-old midfielder.
With other clubs shelling out greater or comparable amounts of allocation money for players like Dom Dwyer, Ethan Finlay, Krisztian Nemeth and Kekuta Manneh this season, the McCarty trade looks like even more of a steal now than it did in preseason. That’s especially true when you consider Chicago received $250,000 in GAM from NYCFC for the No. 3 pick in the SuperDraft just a few weeks before trading for the former Red Bulls captain.
Nikolic, Schweinsteiger and McCarty fit well with the rest of the Fire’s roster, and they’ve been the key figures in the club’s 2017 turnaround. Without Rodriguez, it’s unlikely any of them are at Toyota Park this year.
That’s enough for me to pick Rodriguez as my MLS GM of the Year ahead of worthy candidates like Toronto’s Tim Bezbatchenko, Houston’s Matt Jordan, NYCFC’s Claudio Reyna and Seattle’s Garth Lagerwey. Atlanta’s hugely impressive technical staff of Tata Martino, Carlos Bocanegra, Paul McDonough and Darren Eales also merit mention, but the nature of leading an expansion club is so different than running an existing team that the Five Stripes and Minnesota should be in their own category.
Rodriguez has a huge offseason ahead of him with Schweinsteiger’s contract expiring, Accam potentially looking for a transfer and another expansion draft on the docket. Fire fans shouldn’t be too worried, however. Rodriguez has quickly become one of the most valuable team executives in MLS, and Chicago supporters should have plenty of faith in him to pick the best course for their club.