Manalapan Native, Who Has All Kinds Of Ties To The Garden State, Begins New Journey Against NYCFC On Sunday

By Glenn Crooks
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Whether by fortune or design, Major League Soccer generated an intriguing matchup for Sunday when New York City FC opens the 2016 season at Toyota Park in Chicago against the Fire.

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“You have two proud clubs, one new, one established,” said first-year Chicago general manager, Nelson Rodriguez. “Both in their own way are desperate to get their season started with a victory.”

With unrealistic postseason aspirations, NYCFC meandered through their expansion season with just 10 wins in 34 matches to fall below the playoff line. In what appeared to be an impatient decision that was likely rendered sometime in late summer, Jason Kreis and his top assistants were dismissed by City Football Group and Patrick Vieira was selected as his replacement.

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Vieira’s initial match as a First Team manager is Sunday with NYCFC having even greater expectations in its second season, as an absence from the playoffs will not easily be forgiven.

Chicago sacked its head coach, Frank Yallop, with five matches left in the regular season and concluded the year with the league’s worst mark at 8-20-6. The Fire won only six matches in 2014. The Fire are in the midst of consecutive losing season for the first time since their birth in 1998.

The Fire are one of the most decorated franchises in the history of MLS. The have secured one MLS Cup, a Supporters Shield and four U.S. Open Cup trophies. Chicago qualified for the playoffs in 11 of its first 12 seasons. Recent futility, however, has fractured a once-proud fan base. The Fire have not played a postseason match since 2012 and have failed to make the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.

Enter the charismatic Jersey boy Rodriguez, who is fulfilling a life-long ambition to run a professional sports franchise.

“When I was really young I dreamed of scoring the winning goal, hitting the winning home run,” said Rodriguez, a Manalapan native who admitted his first love was baseball. “However, I was self-aware that athletically it was not going to happen for me — so I dreamed of building a dynasty. Taking this position with the Fire represents a dream come true.”

The man who is positioned to be the architect of the Fire’s resurgence has impressed his mentors and colleagues along the way.

“Unlike most college kids, he did more than you would ask. He wanted to learn as much as he could.” said Kevin McConnell, the former director of sports media relations at Rutgers University who hired Rodriguez as an intern. “He was sharp. I don’t know how he picked it up, but I loved the Mets and Pepsi. The second day he brought in a Mets hat and Pepsi for me.”

The choice to attend Rutgers was beneficial to Rodriguez. It is where he met his wife, Dana Zonkle, and one of his mentors, Bob Reasso. The former 29-year head men’s soccer coach at Rutgers added Rodriguez to his coaching staff.

“He is bright, articulate, very hard working, dedicated and he has principals,” Reasso said. “He’s a unique and very good guy.”

Rodriguez eventually accepted the head coach position at Lafayette College. He assisted Charlie Stillitano with the NJ organizing committee for the 1994 World Cup. Later, he became Stillitano’s assistant in the front office of the NY/NJ MetroStars. That’s where Rodriguez got his first nibble at MLS.

“I dreamed of being Dave Checketts,” he said.

Checketts was the president of the New York Knicks in the early 1990s when the team was in the midst of a stretch of three Eastern Conference finals appearances in four years. Checketts held the same position with Real Salt Lake, turning RSL into an elite MLS franchise. He hired Kreis and eventually won an MLS Cup in 2009. Following his dismissal at NYCFC, Kreis was interviewed by Rodriguez as a possible replacement for Yallop, but the Fire ended up selecting a little known Serbian, Veljko Paunovic.

“He was our first choice,” said Rodriguez, whose parents took him to Randall’s Island to see Pele’s first match with the Cosmos. “We met at the MLS offices while he was playing for the (Philadelphia) Union. He was inquisitive. He wanted to learn about the league and see how things operated. He was studying and following the league a year before he got here. He had a strong desire to learn and improve. A man in motion.”

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Sounds similar to the 19-year-old intern at the Rutgers media relations office.

“I have a lot of admiration for Nelson,” said Bob Turner, who worked with Rodriguez on the NJ-Penn Spirit, an A-League team that played its home matches at The College of NJ. Rodriguez was the assistant GM.

“I call him my little brother,” Turner said. “He’s been successful at every endeavor.”

The venture that primarily paved the path for Rodriguez to Chicago was the executive branch of MLS. Rodriguez served the league for 14 years in a number of capacities including Executive VP of Competition, Technical and Games Operations. He was generally considered the second in command to commissioner Don Garber and was bestowed the task of running a lame-duck Chivas USA franchise in the final months if its existence in 2014.

While at MLS he became good friends with officemate Ali Curtis, who resigned from MLS in 2014 to accept the position of sporting director with the New York Red Bulls.

“Nelson likes to tell the story that he recruited me while he was at Lafayette and I wouldn’t give him the time of day,” said Curtis, who played at Duke. “He is a great friend of mine and we’ve had a number of personal conversations since he got the job — and a number of strictly business conversations — but no trades or transactions yet.”

“We do share ideas, actually, and help one another in different ways,” Rodriguez said of his current relationship with Curtis. “Neither one of us is going to share something of propriety. It’s refreshing and reassuring to know that you can have that kind of relationship.”

Calling himself “anxious” for the home opener for Sunday, Rodriguez is satisfied with the preparations at this juncture.

“I do feel comfortable and I do feel prepared but I’m not afraid to admit what I don’t know,” said Rodriguez, whose team went undefeated in the preseason. “Winning has a way of providing impetus and momentum and validating what you are trying to do.”

Throw-Ins

— Rodriguez called it “significant” and “important” when the Fire rallied from a 2-1 deficit to defeat Vancouver in an exhibition match.

“You never really know about your team until you have suffered,” he said.

— Two players that New York City will count on heavily expressed satisfaction with their new responsibilities in Vieira’s system.

“Last year I was playing right wing,” said Mix Diskerud, the sharpest in the preseason among the returning players. “Now I’m playing in the center of the field, the position I think I should be playing.”

“I didn’t really know how to play my position last year,” said Khiry Shelton, who has played both right and left wing after scoring only one goal in his rookie season. “They are demanding a lot from me on the wings. I’m having a lot of fun.”

These are not strong endorsements for Kreis, who serves as an assistant under Jurgen Klinsmann with the USMNT. Both Diskerud and Shelton spent two weeks in national camp with Kreis prior to hooking up with City for preseason.

Kreis has been given the responsibility of teaching the 4-4-2 with the full team — the system that provided repeated success at RSL.

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For all things futbol and NYCFC, follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks