How Chicago traded Didier Drogba's rights and ended up with Gilberto
Chicago Fire boss Frank Yallop has every reason to be upset and to curse at the fickle soccer Gods for what they've thrown his way. For the second year running, he had a marquee player in his sights and ready to sign, only to see him slip from his grasp.
Last year, Chicago was poised to sign Jermaine Jones, only for the U.S. international to head to the New England Revolution thanks to a league-mandated blind draw. This time around, the Fire had former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba in its crosshairs, and thanks to having filed a discovery claim on the player, the club had his MLS rights and thus the inside track on signing him.
But just like last year, the player ended up elsewhere. With Drogba -- whose first language is French -- preferring to play in French-speaking Montreal, Chicago traded the player's rights to the Impact.
The fact that the Fire ended up with some considerable monetary assets in return softens the blow. One source said the Fire received over $250,000 combined in targeted allocation money as well as regular allocation funds.
That's not a bad bit of business considering that Drogba was never really a Chicago player to begin with. But the optics are another issue altogether. The Fire has been struggling mightily this year and currently lies at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table. A big-name signing such as Drogba would have added a considerable boost on the field, at the gate and psychologically as well. Now there is a sense of what might have been.
The fact that Montreal came in and snatched Drogba away is a source of frustration within the Fire organization, according to one source familiar with the negotiations. Another source said there was even some talk about the Fire filing tampering charges against Montreal, although that talk has now died away.
But as Yallop spoke of his attempts to land the former Ivory Coast international, he was his usual calm and relaxed self. He's been an MLS manager for all or part of 13 seasons. There is little that he hasn't seen or experienced -- both good and bad.
"I don't use the word 'upset' because it's football," he said about the club's failure to land Drogba.
"We've gone down the line with a lot of players. I would have loved to have had Drogba, but basically he chose Montreal, so there's not a lot we can do about it. Montreal is French-speaking and it's for his family and himself, and that's what he decided he wanted to do."
Yallop indicated that the club's pursuit of Drogba began in earnest about a month ago, and he recalled the player's interest being tepid at first.
"Drogba never said, 'Yeah, I definitely want to come to MLS,'" Yallop said. "But then the more he thought about it, it seemed more realistic and then we started to talk to him."
Yallop stated that the talks were the most intense about a week ago, when technical director Brian Bliss traveled to London to meet with the player. The meeting went well but by then, Montreal had also made contact. In a radio interview with TSN Radio Montreal 690 back on July 20, Montreal owner Joey Saputo stressed how his discussions with Drogba had taken place entirely in French, providing a significant level of comfort. That ultimately tipped the scales in Montreal's favor, leaving Yallop philosophical rather than irritated.
"Drogba was an honest guy. I spoke to him on the phone," he said. "There was no skulduggery done. Nobody was lying about anything. It was just an open relationship and very good and positive, and he just chose to go where he wants to go."
He later added: "Obviously the name of Didier Drogba would have been fantastic, and the player himself [too], but it wasn't to be. I try not to dwell on any of it and feel sorry for myself, or the club. We've just got to be strong with our decisions and we've just got to move on and keep going."
One difference between this episode and that of Jones is that last year, the resolution to the situation was arrived at so late -- the end of August -- that there was no time for the Fire to look elsewhere. This time around, Chicago has moved quickly. Within hours of the news emerging that the Fire had traded away Drogba's rights -- contingent upon him signing with Montreal -- it was confirmed to ESPNFC.com that the club had acquired former Toronto FC striker Gilberto on waivers.
"Gilberto has been one of the guys that has been on our radar to try and finish the chances we are creating, which is quite a few," Yallop said.
"He's been in the league. I liked him the second half of the season in Toronto. I think he plays a good No. 9; he's powerful, strong, pretty good in the air, pretty decent with both feet. I think he's been in the league and wants to come back to it, which is a good thing. I've always liked him, and when it came up I thought, 'Yeah.'"
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Chicago is tops in the league at 10.85 chances created per game, but is just 16th in goals per game at 1.10, so Gilberto can certainly help in that regard.
He scored seven goals in 28 league appearances last year. But the Fire has had problems at the defensive end as well, and is tied for 15th with goals against average of 1.50. The sight of defender Adailton gifting New England an equalizer in Saturday's 2-2 draw highlighted the help Chicago needs defensively.
"We're looking at another player right now that will help us," said Yallop. "Cap-wise it's difficult in this transfer window to make big moves and plan way, way ahead. So we're using the mechanisms we have to add Gilberto, and then there's not a ton left to add some help but we're going to try and do that in the defensive area."
Yallop's future may depend on how successful Gilberto and any defensive reinforcements are. The Fire manager insists that owner Andrew Hauptman understands the injury issues that have seen Designated Players such as Shaun Maloney miss significant time this season.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Yallop said about his team's place in the standings.
"But getting a ton of injuries to our top players, that wasn't supposed to be either. I think we have a good, solid team here that's just starting to grow. If people don't want to have patience because we haven't been winning games, so be it. But Andrew has been wonderful. He sees the potential in this team."
But absences, be they through injury or international call-ups, are something every team has to deal with, and two years without a playoff appearance is usually about as much time as a manager gets before he's shown the door.
Yallop could very well find himself facing that scenario at the end of this season. There are some notable exceptions to the two-year rule: Sigi Schmid failed to make the playoffs in his first two years at Columbus before winning an MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield double in 2008.
Yallop survived two seasons outside the playoffs with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2008-09 before reaching the conference finals in 2010. He later won a Supporters' Shield with the Quakes in 2012. Who knows if Hauptman will be as patient.
For now, Yallop is hoping his new acquisition can help save Chicago's season and help fans forget about the one that got away.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.