The mercury might have registered -15 degrees when David Zdrilic arrived in Illinois last month but the new assistant coach of the Chicago Fire knew he’d landed in exactly the right place.
The former Socceroo striker is one of the many high-profile additions to a radically overhauled coaching staff that has been charged with turning around a club oft-labelled the sleeping giant of Major League Soccer.
While leaving his role with Red Bull Leipzig was an enormous decision, the opportunity to join the world’s most rapidly improving league was one he couldn’t pass up.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the MLS, as many of us are in Australia, because we’ve often compared our two countries in football,” Zdrilic told The World Game. “But if you look at what’s happened to A-League and the MLS in the past decade, there’s no comparison.
“The MLS has exploded into the American mainstream and the standard of play, the level of innovation and the overall professionalism is on a different level. They’ve closed the gap on the world’s best and have arguably overtaken all but a few of Europe’s best leagues.”
That chasm between the A-League and the MLS was demonstrated when Zdrilic walked into the Fire’s new offices for the very first time.
“They’re absolutely enormous – I was blown away by it. That ambition dawns on you immediately,” he said. “The atmosphere around the club is electric and you can feel it in all departments. The owner is dead serious about transforming Chicago Fire into an MLS powerhouse.”
Despite boasting almost 10 million residents, the Fire is Chicago’s only professional football team. Success in the MLS would mark the opportunity to put their name next to the city’s other legendary clubs: the Cubs and White Sox (MLB), Bears (NFL) and, of course, the incomparable Bulls.
But Zdrilic knows it will be anything but easy. Having only made the playoffs twice in the past decade, there is no denying the task is a mammoth one – one made even bigger by a massive turnover in players and coaches this off-season.
“This project is about transforming the DNA of the club.
Just as we want to play exciting football, we also want to become hard to beat,” he said. “That takes time to teach, to train and to execute, but it’s what we’re here to do. It’s a great challenge.”
After a spell as head coach of Sydney United and then two years assisting Sydney FC’s under-20 and NYL sides, Zdrilic was hand-picked by the legendary German mentor Ralf Rangnick to join his all-conquering RB Leipzig setup in 2017.
First stationed as the under-17 assistant, Zdrilic soon stepped up to the under-19 role and was charged with implementing the famous “Ralfball” philosophy that took RB Leipzig from lower league obscurity to their present status – Champions League regulars and, as of mid-February, top of the Bundesliga.
However, the club’s desire to push Zdrilic – fluent in German thanks to playing spells in the Bundesliga, 2.Bundesliga and Swiss League – to higher levels were prevented because his AFC Pro Licence is not recognised at any level by UEFA.
“That’s been a difficult ruling to accept. Asian coaches are blatantly discriminated against under the current model. It’s effectively capped what I can do in Europe,” he said.
“We’re now seeing Australians, like Mark Milligan, do their badges abroad. I just think it’s an absurd situation.”
But with his path to Europe’s elite blocked, Zdrilic was headhunted to join a Swiss-German revolution in Chicago.
Zdrilic’s former teammate Sebastian Pelzer, an ex-Bundesliga defender, is the Fire’s new technical director. Pelzer reports to George Heitz, the incoming sporting director, a role he previously held at FC Basel – overseeing that club’s dominance of the Swiss Super League over the past decade.
Chicago’s new head coach is ex-Swiss international Raphael Wicky, who also managed Basel and was most recently the under-17 coach of the US Men’s National Team.
“Raphael has a clear identity for how he wants to play, so the players have been working extremely hard, taking in a lot of new information and trying to implement new ideas,” Zdrilic said.
“With a new manager, sporting director and technical director, it’s a totally clean slate. But they are all on the same page with regards to where they want to take this club.”
Now 45, Zdrilic doesn’t rule out returning to the A-League in the future but is more than happy to keep building his experiences.
“I’ve had fantastic roles offered to me Australia and Asia but I want to gain as much knowledge from the smartest people in the game first,” he said.
“Leipzig was the football equivalent of going to Harvard and it only grew my hunger for bigger challenges. At Chicago, I really believe we can do something special.”