As the Chicago Fire toil through a five-match winless streak and are currently on the outside of the MLS playoff picture, one thing is clear -- Fire owner Andrew Hauptman pieced together the resources to turn this season around.
From mid-July to early August, the Fire brought in designated players Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg. They brought back defender Gonzalo Segares. They traded midfielder Justin Mapp who had not produced in a couple of years. They inserted rookie goalkeeper Sean Johnson into the net.
Sounds more like an offseason than a mid-season.
"It's a work in progress for sure," Hauptman said early this month. "My personality is I'm not easily satisfied. So I'd say there are certain things I'm proud of and certain less of. Our choices can always be better, and they need to be. We've made significant investments in the club, and I'm proud of the commitment we've shown."
The Fire have had their share of highs and lows this season. The most obvious low was a stretch from June 29 to July 17 that consisted of a U.S. Open Cup loss, two league defeats and two SuperLiga losses. Hauptman and company needed to make some significant adjustments to turn the tide.
"I'm not really interested in thinking about one of our years and just writing it off as a transition year," Hauptman said. "That's not an acceptable approach to me. All I can do is provide the resources to our team and leadership and push them to make decisions -- short-term and long-term. I do believe that when you look around the clubs in the league, no one can argue that we made some of the most significant investments on and off the field."
Hauptman's passion in the club is evident. The personnel investments are obvious. But he also has improved the relationship with the Section 8 supporters. He has tried to bring in a more fan-friendly, possession-driven style, though Chicago has had its shortcomings on that front. And the Fire's youth development and growth is unparalleled, with the U-16 Academy earning the USSF Development Academy National Championship in late July.
It has been about three years since Hauptman decided to take the plunge into a Major League Soccer organization. At the start, he was not familiar with the league or the Fire.
"I didn't know MLS quite frankly, and I was that prototypical soccer fan who presumed that the quality was lacking," Hauptman said. "In that sense I was the target audience. I was a relatively young guy who loved the game and knew the game and followed the sport internationally. I didn't really know from a U.S. perspective."
Hauptman, 41, grew up in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island. Soccer and tennis were the two sports he played most aggressively in his younger days, but eventually he chose tennis over soccer.
The game of soccer always has been a part of Hauptman's fabric -- figuratively and literally. His mother designed soccer patches for the Smithtown Kickers, so popular in fact that fellow Long Island native and former Fire great Chris Armas knows about them.
Hauptman's first tangible interest in the club came when he attended the Fire's 1-0 exhibition victory over Cracovia Krakow. Then Hauptman attended the Gold Cup finals at Soldier Field, and between the strong attendance and the Spanish-broadcast ratings, that moment served as a "light-bulb moment" to get involved locally.
"Chicago is a soccer city," Hauptman said. "I've seen it, I've heard it and I've felt it every day."
This year has been a trying campaign for Hauptman and the Fire. Following the 2009 season, it was clear that numerous changes needed to be made. Some were necessary because of players' desires to play outside of the U.S. Other changes included the vision of a more possession-driven style of play. Hauptman admits that has not come to fruition just yet during head coach Carlos de los Cobos' first season at the helm, but he wants to see that carried out onto the pitch.
"I do believe in going to a stadium to see high-quality football, entertaining football," Hauptman said. "If I had to define a style, it's sort of wanting to play on one hand a creative style, but on the other hand it's also combined with a physical, aggressive, organized and direct style. It's a lot easier said than done."
The Fire were hoping that a mid-season flurry of significant personnel moves would serve as a springboard. Castillo's arrival was a two-year project for technical director Frank Klopas. Ljungberg's arrival stemmed from Hauptman's discussions with Seattle Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer.
"I was able to express directly to [Hanauer] my interest in having a player like Freddie," Hauptman said. "He's a guy who has a huge amount of experience. He knows MLS and knows what it takes here, knows how difficult and physical it is. He's a warrior and he's got high integrity. He's a leader, and he is a guy that I saw as someone who could help architect our offense and could be a general in the middle of the field, where we were lacking."
Despite the investments, the Fire's transformation from the offseason to mid-season has them on the brink of potentially missing the playoffs for only the second time in the organization's 13-season history. It is a harsh reality unless Chicago can string together a bunch of wins over its remaining eight regular-season games.
"When we don't perform on the field, we are often devastated by it in all seriousness," Hauptman said. "We take it personally.
"We've taken some steps forward and we've had some setbacks," he said. "That hasn't distracted me from the positives. Hopefully we'll look back many years down the line and say, 'OK, we really built something special.'"