There are three markets in the United States’ contribution to Major League Soccer that, in theory, should be hot-beds for recruiting global superstars. New York has brought in players like Henry, David Villa, and Pirlo. Los Angeles, in turn, has Beckham, Gerrard, and Keane. While these signings have been hit-or-miss, both cities have capitalized on their status and provided the league with truly great footballers.
And then there’s Chicago. As I alluded to in the first installment of Designated Report:
I was going to do this series alphabetically, but Chicago Fire’s history is too beautiful to analyze immediately. That’d be like having a film festival, opening the festival with The Godfather, and showing nothing but Land Before Time sequels afterward.
To borrow a line from Don (Corleone, not Garber): if “confidence is silent, insecurities are loud,” there may be no louder team in MLS than Chicago. While the decision to built their stadium far from the metropolitan center is a discussion for another article, the lack of support may have affected the club’s potential budget, minimizing the expendable income they could use on Designated Players.
Instead of getting Pirlo, they locked down Puppo.
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.
Introduction to Series and Updating Chart of Profiled Clubs
DC United: C
FC Dallas: C+
Columbus Crew: B
Sporting KC: B-
New York Red Bulls: B-
San Jose Earthquakes: C
New England Revolution: C+
Los Angeles Galaxy: B+
Chicago Fire (founded 1998)
Age When Signed: 34
Average Base Salary per Season: $2,584,624
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.744
Blanco is arguably the greatest footballer in Mexican history. Starting his career as a second striker, he debuted with Club America at 19. In a sixteen-year career with America, he scored 135 goals and made 333 appearances, becoming a legend in the club’s history. Likewise, he’s the only four-time MVP in Liga MX history. He spent time on loan with Necaxa, Real Valladolid (Spain), and Veracruz, looking for chances to grow as a player. While playing a World Cup Qualifier in 2000, Blanco broke his leg after a hard challenge from a Trinidadian defender, returning to Valladolid in time to score a free kick again Real Madrid at the Bernabéu.
Aside from Beckham, Blanco was the biggest name lured by MLS in it’s first year of Designated Players. The third DP in league history (after Beckham and Claudio Reyna), Blanco joined the club in July and scored 4 goals with 7 assists, earning an MVP nomination after just 14 matches. In three years with Chicago, the two-time MVP finalist made 62 appearances (56 of which were starts), scoring 16 goals and adding 26 assists. Meanwhile, the Fire made the postseason all three years, looking to be one of the most stable franchises in the league.
Blanco returned to Mexico after 2009, deciding to wind his career down back in his native country. He bounced around five different clubs before hanging up his boots in 2015 with Puebla, still proving to be a valuable attacker as he shifted to a new role as a #10. Upon retiring, he was elected as mayor of Cuernavaca, serving as a Social Democrat. He came out of retirement for one match in March 2016, suiting up for Club America and allowing him to finish his career where it started. He played 36 minutes, hit a shot off the cross-bar from outside the box, and wore jersey #100.
The exception to the rule that Chicago can’t sign marquee talent. Blanco’s 5083 minutes (or 56.48 90-minute periods) are nearly double of any other Fire DP in the club’s history, a fact that already sets him apart from the pack. Meanwhile, he had plenty left in the tank and brought continued success to Chicago, leaving the club on his own terms while still proving to be a valuable player.
Age When Signed: 33
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,300,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.675
The Swedish winger came up the ranks with Halmstads BK, making his senior debut at 17 years old. By 21, he was one of the most sought-after players in world soccer, with clubs like Barcelona, Chelsea, and Parma reaching out to Halmstads trying to lock down Ljungberg. Ultimately, Arsenal swooped in, purchasing him for under $4 million in 1998. He was a regular starter by 2000, working his way toward “club legend” status over the course of 216 games. He netted 46 goals with the Gunners, helping the team to some of their most successful seasons. In 2007, Ljungberg left Arsenal for West Ham, figuring to elevate his profile by standing out from his teammates. After one season and 25 games (scoring just 2 goals and reportedly being offered almost $4 million to tear up his contract and walk), he went on a six-month hiatus, with many across the world speculating that he would retire. He left West Ham for $7 million, and he was linked to Italian clubs like Milan and Roma. Instead, he was lured by MLS expansion side Seattle Sounders, set to join the club for their inaugural 2009 season. We’ll cover that time in a later article.
Ljungberg was traded to Chicago in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft (a pick used on Servando Carrasco, most famous for being Alex Morgan’s husband). In a fifteen game stint, Ljungberg scored twice and added seven assists. However, Chicago missed the playoffs for just the second time in the club’s history, as a core of Ljungberg, Brian McBride, and C.J. Brown wasn’t enough to get above the red line. Ljungberg announced that he would be departing, and he left MLS once and for all.
Ljungberg landed a seven-match spot with Celtic before cashing in with Japan’s Shimizu S-Pulse and India’s Mumbai City. He retired in 2014 to take on an ambassadorial role with Arsenal, and last week was announced as a coach for the Gunners’ U-16 system.
After flaming out in Seattle, Ljungberg has his final impressive showing as a professional in Chicago. He was able to fit into the system right away and be a key distributor despite his age. Still, the club missed the playoffs (which was rare at the time), and he failed to truly move the needle.
Age When Signed:26
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,400,004
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.000
At 5’7, Castillo was able to use his diminutive size to his advantage as a forward. The Mexican winger was scouted by Greek superclub Olimpiacos F.C. at 16, making his debut that year. In 105 matches with the club, he scored 46 goals and quickly became one of the hottest prospects in world soccer. An attempted move back to Chivas Guadalajara was nixed by Olympiacos in 2006, who later sold him to Ukrainian powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk for $22,000,000 (breaking Ukrainian transfer records). However, the hype went to Castillo’s head. In a fall match against FC Naftovyk-Ukrnafta Okhtyrka (yes, that’s a real club), Castillo won a penalty kick and refused to let the team’s PK specialist take the kick (sound familiar?). He ended up having the kick saved, and was loaned out very shortly to Manchester City. He only played 7 matches between 2008-09 with City, and when his purchase option wasn’t picked up, he was sent to league rivals Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk on loan. From 2007- June 2011, Castillo had netted just one goal, a far cry from his massive potential earlier.
Looking to head back to North America to rejuvenate his career, Castillo was brought to Chicago Fire on a loan with a purchase option in July. At the time, he was the second youngest DP in league history. However, Castillo again failed to score a goal, starting 6 matches and subbing into 2 more. He only connected on 5 shots on goal and looked out of place after years of infrequent playing time.
His purchase option was declined, and he terminated his contract with Donetsk soon after. He returned to Greece in 2011, signing with Aris after a successful loan period the previous spring. Finally, six years after the failed Chivas deal, Castillo returned to Mexico, signing with Pachuca and also seeing time with Club Leon. In 2013, he signed with Spanish side Rayo Vallecano, and was released in 2014. At 32, he’s a free agent.
It might be a stretch to call him the Mexican Freddy Adu, but for a player of his pedigree, having less than one SOG-per-game is abysmal. Like Ljungberg, he was a key addition as the club looked to make the playoffs, and he failed to help make the final push. However, Ljungberg was able to make an individual impact; Castillo was a liability.
Age When Signed: 25
Average Base Salary per Season: $100,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.417
The striker came through the ranks with local club Plaza Colonia, being signed away by fellow Uruguayan club Montevideo Wanderers before making a senior appearance with Colonia. After making only nine appearances in two years as a teenager, he was purchased by River Plate in 2006, making 57 league appearances and scoring 17 goals. He began to show promise, getting a Uruguay U-22 call-up in 2011. The same year, he moved to Danubio but failed to find much of a rhythm in his 10 games.
The Uruguayan striker signed a three-year deal with Chicago before the 2012 season. In 11 substitute appearances lasting 216 minutes, Puppo failed to score. He was sent out on loan in July, making a brief four-month stint in the Windy City. He spent 2013 on loan with LDU Quito and Defensor Sporting as the club looked to find a taker for him permanently. In February 2014, Puppo and the Fire (great polka band name) mutually terminated the contract.
After taking 2014 off, Puppo signed with CA Fenix in 2015, failing to score in 8 games. He moved back to Plaza Colonia to finally play with their senior side (having made 16 appearances thus far) and is on their roster for the upcoming season.
Frankly, Puppo didn’t have the pedigree to imply that he’d be successful in MLS. He wasn’t a highly touted prospect (though his U-22 callup made it appear that way) and hadn’t yet made an impact in the club. Only a meager salary hit saves him from a failing grade.
Age When Signed: 26
Average Base Salary per Season: $300,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.286
The attacking midfielder from Uruguay came up the ranks with Uruguay Montevideo, making his debut at 19. He bounced around for a few years, spending a year with Atenas, another with Montevideo Wanderers, another with Puebla, and another with Nacional. At 24, he became the third DP in Seattle Sounders history, coming off the heels of an impressive four-appearance stint with Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. We’ll look at his time in Seattle at the same time we look at Ljungberg’s stint.
Looking to buck a growing trend of failing DP signings, Chicago acquired Fernandez from Seattle for allocation money. He made 13 appearances with the Fire that year, scoring twice as the club returned to the playoffs. He was sent on loan to Qatari club Al Rayyan in 2013 and to Nacional later that year.
At this point, the logistics of Fernandez’s contract status becomes murky. Many sources say his contract is still owned by Chicago and that he’s been on loan with Gimnasia since 2014. However, the league lists his contract as being finished after the 2013 year. Either way, reports from Wednesday have him set to return to Seattle, where the 30 year old will look to rebound after an inconsistent few seasons.
A shrewd pickup for a contending team, Fernandez helped get the club back in the playoffs for the only time since 2009. However, he didn’t make enough of an impact to warrant rostering in 2013 and was much more of a supporting piece than a key cog.
Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $360,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.502
After coming up through the vaunted Ajax academy, the Dutch striker was signed by Anderlecht in 2002. He Bounced around Greece and Germany on loan stints through 2006 before signing with Dutch club AGOVV, scoring 11 goals across 24 matches. He was loaned out to West Brom and signed a full contract in 2008 with a $250,000 transfer fee, again being sent on loan more than seeing time with his club. He left West Brom in 2009, signing with K.F.C. Germinal Beerschot. In three years (82 matches), he scored 15 goals, starting to rebuild his profile after a journeyman career.
In the summer 2012 transfer window, MacDonald joined Chicago Fire. He hit the ground running for the Fire, scoring 4 goals and adding 4 assists in just 12 starts as the Fire made the post-season. Despite having a full off-season to get used to the team’s system, MacDonald’s production fell off in 2013, adding one assist in 13 appearances.
He was released in August 2013, ultimately signing with Westerlo in Belgium. His production picked up again for a couple of years before he was sent on loan to Sparta Rotterdam in 2015, where he again found sporadic results.
After a very promising first few months, the rest of the league figured MacDonald out. He may have been one of the biggest let-downs in MLS in 2013, with some picking him as a Golden Boot threat. His G+A/90 is padded by some short substitute appearances and a truly prolific 2012.
Age When Signed: 24
Average Base Salary per Season: $145,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.343
At 6’3, Anangono seemed like a dream target man. The Ecuadorian signed with national powerhouse Barcelona SC (no, not that Barcá) in 2006, making his senior debut at 18 and scoring 8 goals in 48 matches through the age of 21. He then signed with rival Nacional in 2011, finding his footing and scoring 29 times in 72 matches. He spent 2012-13 on loan with Argentinos Juniors, finding less success but giving him the chance to see another league and improve his skill set.
During the summer 2013 transfer window, Anangono was signed as a DP. He scored a flashy diving header against Real Salt Lake and found the back of the net 4 times in total, but failed to make a great impact for Chicago. He lost his starting spot to Quincy Amarikwa in 2014, and was sent on loan to LDU Quito for the rest of the year.
He signed with Club Universidad de Guadalajara in the Mexican second division in 2015. After scoring 14 goals in 41 matches, he was picked up for a second season.
Despite great physicality and flashes of technical prowess, Anangono never fit into the Fire’s attack. Even the addition of Mike Magee didn’t do any favors for Anangono, and once Amarikwa found his footing in the Starting XI, the writing was on the wall. He’s young enough to have a solid career, but he just wasn’t a good fit for the Fire.
Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $768,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.000
Rios began his career in native Uruguay, as the diminutive midfielder earned 143 club appearances by age 24 with Paysandu Bella Vista and C.A. Bella Vista. He made his Uruguayan National Team debut in 2006 and has earned 81 caps with them, playing in the 2010 World Cup (fourth place), the 2011 Copa America (1st place), the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Copa America Centenario. On the club side, Rios bounced around, spending no more than one season with any of his eight clubs between 2006 and 2014.
Wanting to see what MLS had to offer, he was loaned to Chicago Fire for the home stretch of 2013. The club claimed they had purchased him outright, but after a four month stint where he failed to make an impact for the floundering Fire, he was returned to Club Tijuana.
He was signed by UANL in 2014, ultimately bouncing around between UANL and a couple of loan teams before landing with Chiapas this past month.
With a much more significant cap hit than most of these, Arevalo’s grade takes a hit. The team was already on a downward trajectory, but he looked out of place from the start. A player of his caliber should be able to contribute in some ways, and he didn’t seem to fit in whatsoever with Chicago.
Age When Signed: 24
Average Base Salary per Season: $675,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.600
The Ghanaian winger signed with Ledbury Town in 2009, flashing some potential in England’s lower leagues. He moved on to Evesham United, playing with the club and their reserve team (Forest Green Rovers). However, due to the fact that he was in England on a student visa, he was unable to play in the higher divisions. After another year spent at the Nike Football Academy, Accam signed in Sweden with Östersund, eventually getting picked up by first-tier Helsingborg in August 2012. After scoring 30 goals in 62 matches, Accam was linked to clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt, Tigres, and CSKA Moscow.
Amongst an international bidding war, Accam decided to sign with Chicago as a DP in December 2014. In 24 matches in 2015, he scored 10 goals and added 2 assists, proving to be a bright spot in an otherwise unimpressive team. He continued his form this spring before injuries have hampered his playing time. Still, when he’s on the field, there are few players that are more exciting to watch that Accam.
Yes, this rating is partly off of his potential as a whole. Still, Accam is the best player on a rebuilding Fire team, even making the preliminary squad for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. His stock is continually on the rise, and (assuming he stays healthy) he figures to be a key part of Chicago’s future.
Age When Signed: 26
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,144,992
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.613
Gilberto came through the Santa Cruz ranks, making his debut for the senior team at 20. He scored 23 goals in 31 matches, using his speed and movement to win chances for the second-division side. He moved to Brazilian club Internacional in 2011, spending time on loan with Sport and Portuguesa before a December 2013 transfer brought him to Toronto FC. We’ll cover that more at a later date.
After Toronto acquired Sebastian Giovinco, Gilberto was loaned to Vasco da Gama for 2015. Upon his return, he was waived, landing with Chicago through the allocation order. He scoring 5 goals and added 2 assists in 2015, but failed to find similar success this year. A general lack of cohesion with the roster and his disappointment with the situation in Toronto lead to his departure this summer, with Gilberto returning to Brazil to join Sao Paulo.
While his statistical output was fairly impressive in 2015, it was clear to see that Gilberto never quite fit into the Chicago locker room. A player of his potential (and price tag) was capable of much more, but potential homesickness (possibly brought on by his brief return to Brazil with Vasco) sealed his fate before this season even kicked off.
Age When Signed: 33
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,550,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.366
The Scottish international has had a long and successful career in the UK. He was signed by Celtic at 17, making 104 appearances and scoring 26 goals through age 24. He was moved to Aston Villa, figuring to have a breakout year in the Premier League. However, he had a tough time acclimating to the side, citing homesickness and tougher competition for a slow start. He went back to Celtic in 2008, spending three seasons and continuing his form for club and country. A 2011 move to Wigan Athletic was also a success, earning acclaim as the club constantly fought off relegation threats to stay in the Premier League. Once the club finally went down in 2014, Wigan couldn’t afford his salary.
Maloney was brought in as a DP for an undisclosed transfer fee in 2015. He was off to a fast start, winning MLS Player of the Week in the first week of April after a winning goal against Toronto. However, he again failed to acclimate to a new country, making just 14 appearances with Chicago before being transferred to Hull City in August 2015.
He’s been with Hull City ever since, making 20 appearances last season and scoring a goal. At 33, he figures to either start or be a key figure off the bench for Hull.
Maloney looked like he would be a solid-if-unspectacular piece to the puzzle. With experience as a #10 or as a winger, many figured he could fit into any formation the club wanted to field. However, homesickness again got in the way and he never looked comfortable, on and off the field. With his pricetag, he may be the club’s biggest failure.
Age When Signed: 26
Average Base Salary per Season: $901,667
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.417
The Nigerian striker joined Djurgardens (Sweden) at 18, failing to find starting minutes before being sold to Vasalunds. After he led his league in scoring (30 goals in 51 matches from 2008-09), he returned to Djurgardens, where he scoring 15 goals in two years. He was sold to rival club AIK in 2013, scoring 19 goals in 55 matches. He had proven to be a steady source of goals despite his size (5’9), and was set to stay with AIK for another season, having signed a three-year deal before joining the club.
Instead, he was signed by Chicago as a Designated Player in the winter offseason before 2015. He donned kit 77, and “Iggy” hoped to become a fan favorite immediately, expecting to continue his steady production. However, he only scored 7 goals and added 3 assists, coming off the bench 11 times despite an injury to Mike Magee. (When mlssoccer.com’s profile of you starts with “Igboananike largely did not live up to his Designated Player billing in his first season in Chicago,” you know it was bad.) Despite starting every match this season, Igboananike has just 4 goals and 1 assist, failing to fit into the club’s system despite a relative lack of competition.
After a year-and-a-half, it really seems like Igboananike should have gelled by now. Instead, he’s been maddeningly inconsistent, leading to many Fire supporters to call for his dismissal from the team. There’s still time for him to turn it around, but he’s looked woefully out of place, with just 10% of his shots finding the back of the net.
Average Signing Age: 27.9
Average Base Salary: $928,874.55
Average Grade: C-
I have to admit: that grade isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Blanco is truly a club legend and was the best first DP the team could’ve asked for. Ljungberg rebounded after a miserable second season in Seattle to be a key contributor, and Accam looks to be a great find in the same vein as Mauro Diaz. Still, this club is in a market that’s capable of housing truly world-class talent. Signings like Puppo, MacDonald, and Anangono had potential to be shrewd moves, but their pedigrees just didn’t back that up. There’s a lot to be desired from the Fire.
Next week: Colorado Rapids