Nicolas Gaitan

The Fire Inside: On Nico Gaitán and getting our 20

The day after the Nico Gaitán deal was finally announced, Chicago Fire President and GM Nelson Rodríguez was going through some files at home when he came across some packs of soccer trading cards. They were left over from the days he used to hand them out as gifts to his younger players when he was coaching youth soccer, and on a whim he opened them. The first packet contained a Benfica player named Nicolás Gaitán.

As Nelson recalls it, it was a moment of serendipity that bookended a general good feeling about this deal, that started the morning Gaitán first came onto the team’s radar. As he tells it, that day started with him waking up and thinking “Today’s the day we get our 10.” He even remembered mentioning his hunch to the Soccer Operations team as they started work for the day, as one of those general notes of encouragement and focus team leaders are wont to throw out. Then they submerged themselves in the off-season business of the day.

A few hours later, news came through that a player capable of being an elite number 10 in MLS may be coming available…

Anyone who’s followed the news of the Gaitán deal knows that if the portents around the signing appear auspicious, the process unfolded in rather more methodical fashion. The opportunity, when it arose, had to be seized quickly, but the club had to clear several hurdles to get their man — few of which they had any control over. From the medical, to MLS TAM rules, to the allocation order, to the visa process, to the waiting game of Gaitán’s former club running through the alternatives before accepting the Fire deal, so much was out of the team’s hands. But where the Soccer Operations team could push, they pushed hard.

Eddie Rock is the Senior Director of Soccer Operations. He guides the process of player acquisition, from how the Club directs and collates its scouting searches and priorities, through to monitoring long-term targets and constantly helping the Club refine how they go about their soccer business. As Eddie describes it, normally there’s a method to player acquisition that may not be strict, but which has become more disciplined over time, as experience refines it — but as he puts it to me, “And then there’s Nico Gaitán — an elite number 10 who becomes available and you have to act very, very quickly…”

A pause here. Let’s rewind a moment and talk about pre-season. MLS pre-seasons have traditionally involved warm weather training, often in Florida, Arizona, even Hawaii now, and often involving other MLS teams for the final tune-up games heading in to the season. The MLS calendar, weather, availability of opponents in the middle of their own seasons, and in some cases just the inherited conventions of broader American sporting culture, all have a say in how pre-season training is generally conducted.

In Chicago’s case, however, a different approach for 2019 began to pay some unique dividends in the pursuit of Gaitán. The story of the Club’s pre-season in Madrid perhaps helps tease out some of the ways that building off-the-field relationships can be as significant as preparing players for the rigors of the season.

Veljko Paunović’s relationship with Atlético Madrid is obviously well-documented for example, though hearing Eddie Rock describe it, the experience of seeing that play out first hand was eye-opening:

“Being in Madrid…I mean I think I understood Pauno’s position within Madrid fútbol culture before now, but when you’re actually there with him you realize he’s stopped all the time. Ronaldo reached out to him when he found out he was in town — the original Ronaldo — and they met. Pauno brought Andrew [Hauptman — Chicago Fire Owner and Chairman] there to meet him. [Alvaro] Morata apparently wanted to be Pauno when he was growing up in Atlético Madrid’s youth system. These major, major players identify with him. So, I’d be curious to know, with his one year at Atlético Madrid, how much Gaitán really knew about Pauno. Because they seemed to hit it off pretty quickly when they started engaging via texts and phone calls.”

Beyond the obvious connection through the Head Coach, however, there were other points of contact in Madrid that now came into play, with Gaitán on the radar.

After the Club had pulled together the outline for the deal in short order, there was a window where the player was in Madrid but was scheduled to make a flight to Argentina the next day. As Eddie describes it, at that point “One of the most important aspects was the medical — because this was a significant investment. We knew he was scheduled to fly out, but in a window of around 16 hours we convinced him to remain in Madrid, so [Chicago Fire Chief Medical Officer/Head Physician] Dr. Blomgren could fly to Madrid to perform the medical. It was a lot of moving parts, but I think I called around 8.30 and said, ‘Can you fly to Madrid tomorrow and do a medical for Gaitan?’”

As Dr. Blomgren puts it, “I got a call Monday night basically being informed that the signing was imminent and that the process was pending a contract, which in turn was dependent on a medical. In the world of making everything happen as quickly as possible, the decision was made that going to Spain to do the physical was going to be the fastest way to get the deal done.”

Eddie Rock takes up the story again:

“So, he got on a flight at 4:00 p.m. CT, which is the only direct flight to Madrid. Flew overnight, landed in Madrid, and we have a guy, Alberto, who was Alex Boler’s [Senior Manager of Team and Soccer Operations] assistant on the ground when we were there for pre-season, and we called him the night before to ask, ‘Can you take tomorrow off of work and shepherd our doctor around as he conducts Gaitán’s physical?’”

Even as Dr. Blomgren was in midair, he knew that arrangements were being made with counterparts in Madrid:

“Whenever you travel somewhere to train you need the ability to have a point of contact there who can be a liaison with the local culture, and on the healthcare side of things, you need to know where the local hospitals are, and where we go in an emergency situation, and how you have access to everything you could need. Having those contacts in Madrid for pre-season now helped significantly [with Gaitán] in terms of processing the physical host venue and the tests that we wanted squared away.”

Eddie Rock describes everyone trying to ease the process from across the Atlantic:

“Even when he was in the air, we were finalizing last-minute logistics, because we didn’t know for sure if Gaitan would necessarily be waiting. He had a flight on Tuesday morning to fly back to Argentina, and on Monday night we were saying [to his representatives], “Please ask him to stay.” Pauno was also arranging for Atletico Madrid’s team doctor to help Dr. Blomgren, so he lined up a hospital — and he was amazing in terms of what he was able to provide for us. So, Dr. Blomgren met with him in the morning. Gaitán’s physical was at noon. I think he met with him for about four hours total — full scan, MRI’s, X-Rays, bloodwork. I think Blomgren was done at four [o’clock], dinner, then got the test results and flew out the next morning. And then Gaitán was on a flight back to Argentina for the visa process…”

At that point the holding pattern of P1 forms, DS160’s, registrations and embassy waits began. As Fire fans began a steady Twitter drumbeat of “Announce Gaitán,” everyone at the Club was waiting to do just that, as soon as the bureaucracy permitted. But going back to that feeling of serendipity that Nelson Rodríguez invoked around the deal, there was remarkably little anxiety about the outcome, because of what the Madrid connection had made possible. Now the focus shifted to preparations for Gaitán’s arrival, from promotional materials right down to a Spanish language history of the Chicago players who’d worn his number 20 shirt, to be presented with his first red jersey.

“We knew,” says Eddie Rock, “once he didn’t fly back to Argentina. I think it was Pauno who eventually persuaded him to stay and get the deal done. Around this time was when all the Fenerbahce rumors also kicked up, but we were never really worried because, ‘The guy is not going to stay back in Madrid for an extra two days if he doesn’t want to be in Chicago.’”

So it proved. And as of Thursday morning he will be. That’s the day we get our 20.