The poor results of Fire sporting director Georg Heitz’s 2019-20 offseason are well known. And if the Fire can’t reverse this year’s slide, his moves last winter will face heavy scrutiny.
Perhaps overlooked is what Heitz did between the 2020 and ’21 seasons, a period that wasn’t as splashy but continues to haunt the Fire.
After the Fire narrowly missed the expanded 2020 playoffs, Heitz decreed that continuity would bring better results. Instead of making big additions, he added right back Jhon Espinoza, striker Chinonso Offor and winger Stanislav Ivanov before the 2021 season. He also signed prospect Jhon Duran, who wasn’t eligible to join until 2022. Meanwhile, Heitz sent Homegrown winger Djordje Mihailovic to Montreal for up to $1 million in allocation money and didn’t bring back veteran striker CJ Sapong.
Those decisions aren’t paying off.
Espinoza is still behind starter Boris Sekulic and has struggled defensively when he’s seen the field. Offor is the Fire’s third-choice striker, and Duran has shown some promise but his lack of polish has kept him from seriously challenging Kacper Przybylko.
Ivanov’s struggles are the most glaring.
After missing the first half of last season with a knee problem, Ivanov began this season as a starter. But with the additions of Chris Mueller and Jairo Torres, the emergence of Brian Gutierrez and coach Ezra Hendrickson’s trust in Fabian Herbers, Ivanov seems like the odd man out. He hasn’t played in the Fire’s last four matches, and Hendrickson has chosen to use the more defensive-minded Herbers instead even when the team has needed a goal.
On May 25, Hendrickson said Ivanov is “still in the mix” but then picked Herbers in the 75th minute of the Fire’s 3-2 loss to Toronto when the match was even at 2.
“Right now, we’re in a situation where we feel like we’re putting the best players that we have on the pitch,” Hendrickson said before the Toronto match. “He had a bad run of form right before we got the additions, so that didn’t help his cause. But we want to play the guys who are performing, and that goes from what they do in training, also from what they do when they get their opportunities in games.”
For whatever reasons, Ivanov, Espinoza and Offor haven’t improved since coming to Chicago. At best, the trio give the Fire some depth, but their bit parts and minimal impact make that a hard argument to win, stretching a top-heavy team even further.
Now in Nashville, Sapong remains a dependable scoring option. More painfully for the Fire, Mihailovic has become one of the league’s most dangerous attackers. Since the start of 2021, Mihailovic has 11 goals and 20 assists and recently earned a call-up to the U.S. national team before pulling himself off the squad because of injury.
While it’s unclear whether Mihailovic would’ve reached those heights in Chicago, his breakout is a stark reminder of Heitz wasting the 2020-21 offseason. Unfortunately for the Fire, seeing a former Homegrown player flourish elsewhere isn’t the only consequence of Heitz’s mistakes that winter.