In the hours following Chicago Fire FC’s announcement of its acquisition of Xherdan Shaqiri from Olympique Lyonnais, head coach Ezra Hendrickson met with media to discuss how the signing came to be and how he plans to use the Swiss Men’s National Team midfielder this season.
“I’m feeling great,” Hendrickson said. “I spoke with him last Saturday and just within first two to three minutes, you could tell just how much this guy wanted to be here and how, you know, how much him being here is going to help us, and just the excitement that you can hear in his voice and wanting to really come here and really help this city and this Club.”
Shaqiri’s official announcement on Wednesday came on the heels of days of speculation and hype on social media. The Club teased his acquisition with a post-credit stinger tacked to the end of the first episode of its “No Little Plans” all-access series Tuesday, and formally (and finally) unveiled him just before noon on Wednesday with a video shot in Shaqiri’s native Switzerland.
Hendrickson was quick to credit Fire Sporting Director Georg Heitz and his staff for getting this one over the line.
“We have a very good technical staff,” he said. “Those guys really did their homework, and Georg had a little bit of history with Shaqiri, so that kind of helped it.”
“We were all hoping that it was something that we could see happen, but we're never sure. We were never sure until maybe about 10 days or so ago where we thought, 'okay, maybe this is a possibility.' I have to give all the credit to the guys Georg and Sebastian (Pelzer, Fire Technical Director) and Eddie (Rock, Senior Vice President of Football Operations) and those guys in the technical department that really made sure that this happened.”
Among many other accomplishments from his time in Europe, Shaqiri is a two-time UEFA Champions League winner, seven-time domestic trophy holder, and a general conjurer of eye-popping goals from midfield. He’ll join an attack that features newcomers Kacper Przybyłko and Jhon Durán, as well as returnees like Fabian Herbers, Chinonso Offor, Brian Gutiérrez, and Stanislav Ivanov.
When asked how he might deploy Shaqiri among his group of attackers, Hendrickson was very clear.
“The plan right now is to use him as a 10,” he said. “But, we know that he's very flexible and he can play mainly all across the front three. We play in a 4-2-3-1 system, and I think anywhere across the (front) three, on either wing or as the 10, he can play. But his versatility is really going to help us going forward.”
Shaqiri’s production across stints with FC Basel, Bayern Munich, Stoke City, Liverpool, Lyon, and on the national team level with Switzerland is well-documented. He brings 205 career goals and assists with him to Chicago, and will be relied upon to finish just as much as he provides.
And while the physical abilities he possesses should keep Fire fans on the edges of their seats at Soldier Field, Hendrickson believes he’s approaching this new challenge with the right mindset as well.
"He talks about being a team player and coming here, not for vacation, but to win a championship," Hendrickson said. "All of the things that when I spoke with him that he was saying, I think it's going to be easy for him to fit in. We have a young team that he's going to have to be patient with some of the guys, but I think after speaking to him, I can see that he's a guy that's going to come here and do whatever it takes to help us."
Shaqiri’s acquisition is most certainly a boost for the Fire’s profile both domestically and internationally, but also threads a certain unique needle for Major League Soccer in general as well. At 30 years old, Shaqiri is still in his prime as a player, boasts a massive international following, and chose to come play in the United States instead of remaining in Europe.
His signing, along with the recent acquisition of former Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne by Toronto FC, are the types of moves that fans of MLS will hope to see become a trend.
“He's one of the type of players - if you look at teams who have been successful recently and win championships - there's always that special player,” Hendrickson said. “(New York City FC forward Taty) Castellanos last year, a couple years ago (Lucas) Zelerayán with us in Columbus, in Atlanta with Josef Martinez, and those guys like that. I think you need a player that can really be a game-changer, who - by the snap of the finger - could change the game for you. Maybe it's an 89th minute goal or maybe it's a special, spectacular free kick, what-have-you.”
“I think that's something he can bring to this team.”
While the finalization of Shaqiri’s visa process is ongoing, it’s unclear at the moment when exactly he’ll join up with the squad currently in Austin, Texas for the second leg of 2022 preseason camp.
However, having departed his former club while in-season, Hendrickson is confident his new midfielder will be fit and ready for the Fire’s season opener on Feb. 26 at Inter Miami CF whenever he ends up touching down stateside.
“He’s excited to come ASAP, and we want to have him here as quickly as possible,” he said. “However, there are visa processes that he has to go through, and hopefully that happens sooner than later, because you know, the season is upon us and it will start in a few weeks here.”
“If we get him within the next week or so, we'd be very, very happy, but it's all about the visa now. Everything is set and we're just waiting for that process to happen and he'll be here.”
The Fire play their second of four preseason friendlies this Saturday when they take on Toronto FC at Austin’s St. David’s Performance Center at 11:00 a.m. CT. Fans can tune in live at chicagofirefc.com/live and on the CFFC mobile app.
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