How the Chicago Fire can help Xherdan Shaqiri
Photo by DeFodi Images via GettyImages

The Chicago Fire have won the World Cup.

Nearly six years after that fateful press conference, the club has finally achieved the dream that seemed utterly impossible. Kind of.

This World Cup has been a success for the Fire thanks to the performances of their sole representative, Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri

Coming into the tournament with some injury concerns, the attacker made a dream start to his time in Qatar, assisting the only goal in a 1-0 win over Cameroon. A knock in that contest prevented him from featuring in the next game versus Brazil, but it allowed him to rest up for the group stage finale against Serbia.

That proved to be crucial as Shaqiri dropped a masterclass when it mattered most. He scored the opener with a smart low strike, even if it benefited from a deflection. Then, with the Swiss down 2-1, he started the move which led to the equalizer before getting a secondary assist on the winning goal. His performance went beyond those scoring moments, and his movement in the final third was vital throughout.

His tournament had a rough ending since Switzerland was thumped 6-1 by Portugal in the round of 16, but the number 23 did whip in the corner that led to his country’s sole goal at least.

All in all, Shaqiri was able to showcase his class on the world stage once again. Why’s that so important to the Fire? Well, he didn’t really have the best campaign this past season, and some were starting to worry that the club was wasting money on their big-name Designated Player. There were thoughts that he was washed, and that he wasn’t the player he used to be.

These recent performances have shown that reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated.

So, Chicago knows that they’ve got a quality player on their roster, they’ve now just got to figure out how to get the best out of him. How can they do that? Here are some ideas.

Play him out wide

This is the biggest fix, and it’s the simplest one.

For pretty much the entire season, the Fire and head coach Ezra Hendrickson played Shaqiri up the middle as a central attacking midfielder. He was their number 10, both in literal jersey number and role in the team.

It was a decision that made some sense. The player was known more as a winger, and he had been one for most of his career, but he was a bit older now. He didn’t quite have the raw speed and power that he used to have. What he did still have was his vast technical ability, which should have made him a huge threat in central positions.

That’s not what happened, though. Shaqiri looked lost most of the time. He wasn’t sure where exactly to go, and it hurt Chicago when they tried to push forward. He ended up floating out wide to pick up the ball, which led to an imbalance in the team. There was a stretch where it looked like he had figured things out, especially with the emergence of Chris Mueller, but that ended up being a false dawn.

If the Fire weren’t thinking about moving the DP out wide before the World Cup, they certainly are now. It was no surprise to see him thrive at the tournament in his more natural position on the right wing. That’s where he assisted a goal versus Cameroon, and it’s where he rifled home against Serbia.

He’s just more comfortable there. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and trying to force an older player into a new position isn't the smartest move, especially when they’re supposed to be the key man in the team. 

The club has other options they can turn to as well. There’s an argument to be made that Jairo Torres would do better up the middle, while a lot of people want to see Brian Gutiérrez as the number 10 going forward.

Let Shaqiri cook out wide.

Bring in help

Speaking of the supporting cast, the Fire do need to bolster the rest of their squad.

The roster wasn’t good enough in 2022, and that was especially true when you went beyond the backline. 

Bringing in Kacper Przybyłko was ultimately a horrific decision, and his woeful play hurt the team early on. Jhon Durán showed promise after becoming the starter, but he wasn’t the most well-rounded or consistent option either.

Hendrickson has already mentioned that the club are looking after a marquee number 9, so imagine the possibilities if Shaqiri played alongside a top-tier striker. There would be a clear target to aim for going forward, and since he’d grab the attention of the defense, there would be more space for the Swiss international to operate in.

Another attacker would be useful as well. The aforementioned Mueller and Gutiérrez both have their moments, but they’re just not quite at the level of Shaqiri or other really good players across the league. Torres could get there, but he needs to stay healthy, and the club needs to figure out what’s his best position. Bringing in someone could add a new dynamic to the side, whether it’s a veteran European name or a younger, faster attacker from elsewhere.

Even the middle of the park could be improved. Gastón Giménez has flopped ever since coming to the club, and even though the potential midfield partnership of Federico Navarro and Mauricio Pineda has promise, it could probably get better. More possession, more time for Shaqiri to cook.

He’s never really been “the guy” at any of the clubs he’s been at, and it’s clear that he’s at his best when he’s in more of a supporting role. If Chicago can build a proper team around him, then maybe the attacker will start to shine.

Rest and rotation

A lot of Shaqiri’s problems last season could be traced back to one moment early on in the campaign.

The number 10 had just come back from international duty, where he played twice for Switzerland against the likes of England and Kosovo. Despite all those minutes on the field and all the traveling he had to do off of it, Hendrickson decided to start him in the Fire’s first game following the break.

Shaqiri only lasted 19 minutes before he had to come off with a calf injury. That led to him missing the next two matches, and it started a seemingly endless cycle of issues. Either he’d be unavailable entirely, or he’d have to play at less than 100%. It’s unclear if Chicago had a fully fit version of the player at all during the second half of the season. He struggled as a result.

That’s why they’ll have to manage his minutes next year. You only have to look at the World Cup to see an example of this. Switzerland could have forced him to play versus Brazil, but they decided to rest him instead, and that led to him being ready to go for the match against Serbia. 

It’ll be tempting to play the attacker every week when next season rolls around, but the Fire will have to be smart when it comes to his game time. You’d rather have a healthy Shaqiri for three games out of four than having him looking like a sack of scrap metal two months into the campaign.

Attacking freedom

This one will be tough.

If there’s one thing Hendrickson demands from his side, it’s that they are solid defensively. His focus has been on not conceding and securing clean sheets, even if it hampers the side going forward. You can’t lose if you don’t give up goals. 

That’s what makes having a player like Shaqiri a bit of a tricky situation. He’s not necessarily lazy, but he’s not someone who loves to track back all the time. He could help out defensively if need be, although he’d much rather just stay higher up the pitch.

There was a particular moment last campaign when his lack of workrate hurt Chicago. He failed to track his man against NYCFC late on in the season, and his man went on to score the winning goal of the game since he was left wide open.

Shaqiri was blamed for that incident, and for good reason, but a change in tactics could have prevented that from happening. A tiger can’t change its stripes, and an offensive-minded attacker can’t be yelled at too loudly for not tracking back all the time.

Tweaking the system so that the Swiss international can stay further up the pitch could be the solution to this issue. Having another player responsible for all the running would keep the team’s defensive security, and it’d allow Shaqiri to focus on the final third. He’s not got a ton of stamina in the tank, so preserving his energy on the attack could lead to a greater return going forward. 

Sell him

As wild as it sounds at the moment, and as wild as it would have seemed when Shaqiri first joined the club, there was a good chunk of supporters who wanted to see the player sold about a month ago.

Despite some decent looking stats, a lot of fans were disappointed when it came to the player’s overall campaign. Part of that was tied to the team’s poor season, as they missed the playoffs by a considerable margin. The DP was a reason why though.

He was missing for a decent amount of the season. Sometimes the reason was injuries, as Shaqiri spent most of the year dealing with a few nagging problems which ruled him out for weeks at a time. Then there were the games where he actually played but didn’t do much. He’d go really quiet, and it was almost like he wasn’t even there.

If this was a different player with lower expectations then it’d be somewhat understandable, but this was someone who started the campaign as the league’s highest paid player. Supporters turned on him, and when the Swiss international grew frustrated on the field, things only got worse. 

So, with his transfer value as high as it might ever be following the World Cup, why not cut your losses and sell the player while you can? European clubs simply love buying someone after they have a good showing at the tournament, so there could be some interest in Shaqiri. There’s a chance he’d like to be back overseas as well, which would make this a win-win for all involved. 

It’s almost certainly not going to happen, but it’s an idea at least.

Tell him he’s actually playing for Switzerland

Yes, this would be lying, but hear me out.

Shaqiri is simply better when he’s playing for Switzerland. That’s been true his entire career, not just during his Fire tenure. That makes sense, as the pride of international football tends to make players try their absolute hardest. He cares more about his country than Chicago.

Let’s have him think he’s still playing for his country then. You’ll have to change the logo, of course, but the Fire have rebranded a ton already, so one more won’t kill them. The jerseys will have to change to red and white, although that’s going to happen in 2024 anyway. If the club can secure a sponsorship deal with Playstation Plus and put that on a kit, then Shaqiri will just assume it's the Swiss flag on his jersey.

You could even take it a step further and replace the entire roster with that of the Switzerland team that was at the World Cup. Who wouldn’t want to see Granit Xhaka in midfield instead of Gastón Giménez? If the Swiss can make the round of 16 at the World Cup, then they should easily make the MLS playoffs.

Play the Swiss anthem before games. Get the coaching staff some traditional Swiss clothing. Have the fans make a tifo that looks like the Alps. Start selling high quality chocolate at games.

Might as well try.

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