Shortly after it was announced that long-time MLS player and assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson was to become Chicago Fire FC’s next head coach, the Club released a sit-down interview with the 49-year-old held during his first visit to the team’s downtown office.
The final video was two-and-a-half minutes in length, but Hendrickson’s conversation with ChicagoFireFC.com ran for nearly 25 minutes. In it, Hendrickson laid out his coaching philosophies, discussed his long list of successes in MLS, emphasized his passion for bringing the best out of young players, and reiterated his excitement for the opportunity now ahead in Chicago.
Watch the Club’s condensed interview with Hendrickson below, and continue on to read his full thoughts on the wide variety of subject covered below (edited for clarity).
On the emotions he’s experiencing as he prepares for his first head coaching role in MLS:
“I’m very excited. As a coach, this is the pinnacle of our profession in our league. I’ve always wanted to be a head coach in the league. I’ve worked for some of the top coaches in Sigi (Schmid), Schmetz (Brian Schmetzer), and Caleb (Porter), and always wanted and aspired to have my own team. I think the timing is right. It’s perfect. I’ve certainly paid my dues, and I’m just excited to get started with this organization.”
On the conversations had with Club staff that led to his appointment:
“They just want success. They were looking for somebody with a little bit of a history of success. As a player and as a coach, I’ve had success in the league. Meeting them and sitting down and talking with them about the possibilities of being the next head coach here were good conversations. I flew into Chicago after the initial interview, which was a Zoom call, and then I came here and we just sat down and talked. I shared my ideas with them about how I could get this organization, this club, back to where it was and where it needs to be. Chicago is a very big market, and it’s one of the teams in the league that needs to be doing well. So, we talked about that stuff, and I shared my ideas. They were in line with what they were trying to do. I think it was just the perfect fit. They thought that I was the guy, and I think I reassured them once I got here that I was the right guy for the job.”
On how his 25 years of experience in MLS as a player and coach will be an asset:
“Having played in the league all my years - I never played overseas or anything - I’ve learned the league. I know what it takes to win in this league. I’ve had some success. I’ve played for some good coaches, coached with some good coaches. It’s not just about me, it’s about the people I’ve worked around. I know not only how to win, but the type of people I need around me to be successful. I think I bring that to the table. Being in those kinds of environments has helped me to be able to now get my opportunity and get the most of it.”
On what he learned working under Hall of Fame Head Coach Sigi Schmid, current Seattle Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, and current Columbus Crew Head Coach Caleb Porter:
“When you talk about Sigi, he’s like a father figure to me. My teammates always called me his son, because we had that kind of relationship. He taught me a lot about the game and how to prepare for an opponent. He was very, very meticulous about how he prepared. Sometimes as an assistant coach of Sigi, you’d get an email at 2 o’clock at night or a call or text at 2 o’clock at night because he’s up studying the next opponent. (I learned) that part of it - his ability to win games and be able to match up with an opponent."
"Schmetzer just knows how to get the players to play for him. He’s a very, very good coach. He’s the kind of guy that you want to go out there and fight for. Caleb has a lot of similar tactical ideas as myself. We like the same style of play, a very possession-oriented style of play. So, all in all, I took a little bit from each of them and then I formulated my own idea, my own philosophy of how the game should be played and what it’s going to take to win in the league. I’m just looking forward to being able to put all these ideas into one and formulate my idea of the game and my philosophy. So, on a Saturday night at 7:30, you’ll see not just Ezra’s ideas but a combination of what he’s learned from the coaches that he’s worked with and just being in the league for so long. It’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m ready to grab it by two hands.”
On what have been the most fulfilling parts of the job for him so far as a coach:
“Just getting players to realize their potential. Working with young men, teaching them not just football but how to be professionals, how to be outstanding citizens. That ability to work with guys and have that rapport with people who trust you and look up to you basically as a teacher - I always enjoy that. Even in my later years as a player, I was kind of an extension to Sigi’s staff. He looked upon me as a captain and someone who could bring the younger guys along. I took a lot of pride in that. When he gave me the job to coach [Seattle Sounders 2], I jumped on that. I like that idea of teaching these young guys how to be successful in what they’re doing and their jobs. I’m into that, just teaching the players about the game and about life.”
On his experience with championship-winning teams and what it takes to instill that mindset:
“There has to be trust - among the players, the staff, and throughout the organization. It takes a collaboration. Some teams I’ve been on have been loaded with talent and we didn’t win anything because maybe we didn’t have that togetherness and we didn’t have that accountability. I’ve been on other teams which were less talented, and we went on to do a lot of great things. Having that sense of togetherness, having a feeling of collaboration where everyone - from the ticket sales to the last player on the bench to the owner - have that buy-in. Everyone trusting in the process of what we’re trying to do is very key to be successful in this league. When you have a team that has buy-in, there’s trust amongst the organization, amongst the team, player-to-coach, and there’s accountability where everyone is holding each other accountable, those are the types of attributes you need within the organization and the team to be successful.”
On his relationship with fans at his prior stops in the league as a player and coach:
“My rapport with fans has always been great. As a player, I worked hard. I maybe wasn’t the best, most technical player, but I was a hard worker and I scored some big goals for the teams that I played on. So, I always had a really good relationship with the fans. I think that’s something that I can translate to my players.”
“Listen, we have to have a good relationship with the fans. They come here, they pay hard-earned money to see us. Make sure when they leave, they’re not saying that team lacks effort. We’re not going to win every game, but make sure when they leave that stadium, they’re saying ‘You know what, that team worked hard.’ If we did lose, we didn’t lose because of a lack of effort. Having that type of rapport with the fans has always been great.”
On playing against the early Fire teams during the late 1990s and early 2000s:
“I can tell you one specific player I remember, because I faced him every game we played against the Fire. That’s DaMarcus Beasley. We had some battles, me being a right back and him being on the left wing. He was a younger, much faster player, so there were some good battles. But, we were always good friends. At the end of the game we shook hands, but during that 90 minutes, it was a battle. It was up-and-down. I was a right back that liked to get forward a lot, so I made him work. Whenever I felt like he was getting the best of me - I was a little bigger and stronger than him - maybe I got a little stuck in more than he would like (laughs). But, at the end of the day, we were always friends. That’s a memory that I remember a lot with those teams.”
On building a team that Chicago fans will appreciate:
“One of the things I told Joe [Mansueto], Georg [Heitz], and Sebastian [Pelzer] is my belief is that the identity of a team should be in alignment with the reputation of the city that it represents. When I look at Chicago, I see hardworking, successful people. That is the type of team that we’re going to have here moving forward in Chicago - a team that not just works hard, but works smart. A team that, when the fans come to the game, they leave happy. Win, lose, or draw, they’re going to leave happy because they know those guys are putting in the effort and they’re doing the work. It’s impossible to win every game - hopefully, we do, but you know how that goes - but no fan is going to leave the stadium on a Saturday night being disappointed in the performance, the effort of the team. That’s the kind of enthusiasm, that’s the kind of work ethic, that's what the identity of this team will be: A very hardworking, very exciting, fun team to watch play. Just entertaining people, making them enjoy. The best way to entertain the fans is with a W at the end of the 90 minutes.”
On his to-do list as he looks to have his team ready for preseason in January:
“Having gotten rid of a lot of players from this past season, we have to get some players in. We have to hit the ground running. The scouting has been in process, so we just have to continue that process and make sure we have players available. We have a good core group of players, but we need some reinforcements because we’re losing a lot of key players from last year. We’re going to comb the entire globe and make sure we get the players that we all think can be successful and can help the team be successful.”
On the Fire’s crop of Homegrown signings on the roster and the importance of the Academy-to-first team pipeline:
“With Guti, Pineda, and these guys coming through, it’s good. I don’t think Chicago gets a lot of credit for what they’ve done with their Homegrowns and the Academy - as, say, Philadelphia and Dallas - but they’re right up there on par. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the Club. I see that progress and I see that pathway from Academy to first team being one that Joe and these guys are very, very into and adamant about continuing.”
“Like I said, I’ve been working with young players from my latter years as a player and then with Sounders 2, and that’s something that I enjoy. I’ve been a part of a lot of guys coming up. You see them now as first team professionals. It’s a joy to me. Having that pathway from the Academy up to the first team is very, very important to the sustained success of the team.”
“It’s a very young team, and I’m excited to work with them and teach them about the game - how to be successful, how to be a proper professional in this league and connecting with the fans, connecting with the community, working hard day in and day out, every training session.”
On what Fire fans can expect when Hendrickson’s team debuts at Soldier Field against Orlando City on March 5:
“I just want the fans to come out knowing that they’re going to be entertained. The biggest way to entertain them and keep them entertained is to win games. They’re going to see a style of play that they’re going to relate to. They’re going to enjoy watching our games. They’re going to see players who are working hard. Players who are very tactically sound. Every player will know their role. Roles are going to be clearly defined. That starts with training. Every training session will be themed, and one of the principles of our style of play will be enforced in every training session.”
”On Saturday night or that first game, they’re going to see, ‘Ok, this is what these guys have been working on the past six weeks in training,’ Hopefully, it’s going to be a win. It’d be a great way to start off next season, to give fans hope and keep their belief that this is going to be a successful program and organization. There are going to be some bumps in the road, but we want to hit the ground running and we want to start off that game with a victory. We owe it to our fans to get them pumped and get them ready for this game so when they do come, we make sure they leave the stadium excited, happy, and want to come back to the following game.”
“It’s exciting times. I just want the fans to be happy, be patient - there will be some growing pains - but we’ll get it together and this team will be successful.”