Why Chicago Fire Will Move on From Xerdan Shaqiri

Xherdan Shaqiri has once again been stealing the headlines at an international tournament. The Swiss winger was benched for his country’s opening EURO 2024 match against Hungary, but started and scored a beautiful goal in the second clash, which pitted Switzerland against Scotland. Fans have once again been reminded of Shaqiri’s innate football talent, as well as his incredible ability to step up at major tournaments.

In the United States, however, the narrative around the player is very different. Shaqiri has played his club football at MLS side Chicago Fire since 2022. He was the club’s most expensive transfer at the time and remains its highest-paid player. The move has turned out to be a woeful decision from both ends – the Fire has consistently been in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings and Shaqiri has put up very poor numbers.

Chicagoans have become rightfully irritated with their biggest name. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Shaqiri was entrusted with the captain’s armband at the start of 2024, he has shown minimal fight and commitment throughout the season. Moreover, upon arriving to Switzerland’s pre-EUROs training camp, the player announced a desire to return to Europe (presumably FC Basel). Supporters’ frustrations have intensified and it looks like Shaqiri’s time in Chicago is over.

Just How Bad Has Shaqiri Been?

The Chicago Fire underwent an ownership change in October 2019, with billionaire Joe Mansueto taking the majority share, having first bought a 49 percent stake. In the first two seasons of the Mansueto era, the new owner oversaw a rebrand and a stadium change. The next piece of the puzzle was to sign a big-name European star that would join the likes of Hristo Stoichkov and Bastian Schweinsteiger in having donned the Fire kit. Shaqiri was chosen to be that star.

From a tactical standpoint, Shaqiri was supposed to transform an ever-struggling attack with his expert finishing (as seen at the EUROs) and creativity. He has not done that at all. Two and a half years on from his arrival, the Swiss has 16 goals and 13 assists to his name across 75 appearances. It has gotten worse with time too, as he has only registered three goal involvements (two penalty goals and one assist) in 12 appearances this season. For comparison, Shaqiri has scored three goals, all from open play, for Switzerland in 2024.

The advanced statistics tell a similar story. This year, Shaqiri’s taken an average of 0.73 shots per 90 minutes, registering 0.02 expected goals, as per FBref. He attempts upwards of 50 passes per game but has a pass completion rate of just 73%, placing him in the bottom 40% of all attacking midfielders and wingers in MLS. Shaqiri’s dribbling is somehow worse, with 1.09 progressive carries per match, placing him in the third percentile.

What Seems to Be the Problem?

When a European star moves to MLS and struggles, it is usually chalked up to age. This is not the case with Shaqiri, who is only 32. He came to the United States relatively early in his career, still in fine footballing condition. The attacker’s failures in Chicago cannot be attributed to a general dip in quality either, because Shaqiri consistently performs well for his national team. Most football fans would agree that the competitive standard of the World Cup, EUROs, UEFA qualifiers and Nations League is significantly higher than that of MLS.

The only explanation seems to be a pure lack of effort. Shaqiri has shown glimpses of commitment to the Fire, but for the most part, he is sluggish on the pitch and apathetic in press conferences. At the end of the day, a player of Shaqiri’s calibre does not need an MLS playoff appearance nor an MLS Cup title to feel content with his career. He is not in the hunt for any individual awards either. Chicago is also objectively a poor team, and has been for several years. There’s nothing about playing for this club that is motivating its captain to do well.

What Has Already Changed for the Fire?

It seems likelier than not that Xherdan Shaqiri has already played his last match for the Chicago Fire. There were speculations amongst journalists and analysts that he would not be returning after the EUROs. Shaqiri’s most recent remarks more-or-less confirm that. With his contract expiring at the end of 2024, Shaqiri will be hopeful of a summer move, as the Fire look to avoid giving him away for free.

Without Shaqiri in the squad, Frank Klopas’ Chicago side has looked and will look significantly different. Every attack is no longer centered around Shaqiri. Young talent Brian Guti√©rrez sees more of the ball and Fabian Herbers moves back permanently into an attacking role. The latter had previously started in the double pivot midfield, where he has done notably worse than in the number 10 position.

When Shaqiri left for the EUROs, the Fire was on a four-game losing streak and a seven-game winless streak. They recorded two further draws to start the summer, before picking up back-to-back wins against Toronto FC and the LA Galaxy. Despite losing their two most recent matches and falling to last place in the standings, the Fire remain just six points off the playoffs. Things are still far from perfect, but the Fire look objectively better without their record signing.

How Will the Board Respond?

It will be interesting to see whether Mansueto and his front office look to find a quick replacement for Shaqiri or if they choose to wait out the 2024 season before splashing big money once again. There is no shortage of attackers in Klopas’ squad right now, and the team has scored nine goals across the last four matches. Whatever the case may be, Shaqiri’s departure has freed up a Designated Player (DP) slot for the Fire, which will enable the club to sign a big-name player in any position should they decide to do so.

Xherdan Shaqiri’s bitter end at the Chicago Fire solves more problems for the team than it creates. No, the club will not magically be vaulted into the playoffs with him gone, nor are they necessarily a good team yet. Nevertheless, they have been freed from a captain who has dragged the team down for two and a half years.

From the player’s perspective, a return to his homeland can bring out the best in him and he will rediscover his happiness playing football. From the club’s perspective, if the staff can collectively learn from their mistakes, Shaqiri leaving could be a blessing in disguise.

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