This week’s opening of Chicago Fire FC preseason camp has brought with it the opportunity for new head coach Ezra Hendrickson to at last begin working directly with his players and implementing his preferred style of play.
Having had two months to wait and prepare for his first camp as an MLS head coach following the announcement of his hiring in November, Hendrickson was eager to get out on the training pitch.
“Walking onto that pitch was…excitement,” he told media in a conference call on Wednesday afternoon. “Just being able to teach these guys, and talk to them about what this session was going to be about, and then to see them going out and performing, executing it during the session…for me, it was just excitement.”
Hendrickson’s enthusiasm is well-earned, having now reached the end of a long journey toward his first MLS head coaching gig. However, the work toward the Fire’s 2022 season opener at Inter Miami CF on Feb. 26 is just getting started, and the 50-year-old has a clear idea of how he expects his team to play come opening day.
“I think you're going to see a more progressive possession style,” he said. “I like to have the ball. I like the team to have the ball and when we don't have it, we try to get it back as quickly as possible.”
The next several weeks in Orlando and Austin will be spent embedding that mindset into his team, which includes a young returning core and a handful of new faces currently integrating into the side.
Among them is Jhon Jader Durán, the 18-year-old Colombian forward who just joined the team this month after being acquired by the Fire as the youngest international player signing in Major League Soccer history last January. Durán spent last season at Envigado FC, where he scored eight goals and added three assists across 24 appearances in all competitions before his departure.
“He's a very good player, young, energetic player, very dynamic,” Hendrickson said. “I think he's going to score some goals for us this year. We are going to look for him to put the ball in the back of the net. He’s very versatile.”
“That dynamic that he brings - the ability to take guys on 1-v-1 and that finishing ability - is something that we are going to look to see from him this year.”
German defender Rafael Czichos has also joined the squad with expectations in tow, having arrived from Bundesliga side FC Köln on Jan. 2. A left-footed central defender, Czichos brings over 400 professional appearances in the German professional pyramid to the Fire backline ahead of his first season in MLS.
“He really blew me away as far as his leadership qualities,” Hendrickson said. “Talking to him, I knew that, okay, this is a guy, yes, I like what I saw, tactically, technically. But, I think after speaking to him, I knew that he was a guy that will be good for us. He’ll be a leader on this team. We're just happy that he's decided to join our team.”
As for further additions to the squad during preseason, Hendrickson expects the Club to continue doing its due diligence ahead of opening day. His focus remains on the group he’s got in Orlando.
"We have ongoing conversations with prospective players and their prospective clubs and these are situations that we hope to get across the line as quickly as possible,” he said. “So we are being patient, but we are starting with the players that we have in camp right now, and it's been a good first couple days.”
Competition among the new faces and the returning ones will be central to this season’s camp experience, as each player on the roster looks to impress the new head coach and earn a place in the starting lineup come February.
The group's first test comes 10 days from now, when they’ll face Minnesota United FC in a friendly on Saturday, Jan. 29, (12 p.m. CT) from the Omni Resort at ChampionsGate.
“What we've stressed to these guys is there is no set 11 right now, and how you do from now till February 26 will determine whether or not you're in the first 11. It's an open slate,” Hendrickson said."
"For a lot of the positions, it's up for grabs and it's going to be based solely on performance. This team is going to be chosen on Feb. 26 based on how guys do from now till then.”