Ezra Hendrickson believes his Chicago Fire side have found their "game-changer" in new signing Xherdan Shaqiri.
The Switzerland international completed a $7.5m transfer from Lyon on Wednesday, further enhancing the Fire's rapidly growing attacking options for the 2022 season.
For Shaqiri, Chicago is just the latest step in a career that's also taken in spells with European giants such as Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Inter, winning the Champions League twice as well as titles in England, Germany and his home country.
At club level, the 30-year-old has 76 goals and 75 assists to his name in 422 appearances, while Shaqiri's 100 caps for Switzerland place him fifth on the nation's all-time appearance list. He's sixth for goals with 26.
With that considerable rap sheet and the prospect of pairing him with new striker Kacper Przybylko, it's little wonder Hendrickson believes Shaqiri could become a talismanic figure in MLS, similar to the likes of Josef Martinez, Lucas Zelarayan, and Taty Castellanos.
“If you look at the teams who have been successful recently and win championships, there’s always that special player,” Hendrickson said at a press conference on Wednesday (via MLSsoccer.com).
“Maybe it was Castellanos last year, a couple years ago Zelarayan with us in Columbus, back to Atlanta with those guys, Josef Martinez and those guys like that. I think you need a player that could really be a game-changer, who by a snap of the finger can change the game for you … And also we went out and got a striker in Pryzbylko that needs someone to get him the ball and we think Shaqiri is going to be very, very useful in unlocking defenses.”
Shaqiri's more recent career has been hampered by injuries and in the 12-month period from December 2019, the playmaker missed 28 games due to muscle problems. There are those who believe he's over the hill and coming to MLS for a bumper payday.
But Shaqiri is still only 30 years old and based on his dealings with the player so far, Hendrickson has a very different impression.
“I spoke with him last Saturday and just within the first two to three minutes, you could tell just how much this guy wanted to be here and how much him being here is going to help us,” the Fire head coach said. “Just the excitement that you can hear in his voice, wanting to really come here and really help this city and this club. That was very important to us, beyond just what we know he can do on the pitch.
“We have a young team that, he's going to have to be patient with some of the guys,” he added, “but I think after speaking to him, I can see that he's a guy that's going to come here and do whatever it takes to help us, [even if] it’s defending, because we talked about how everyone defends as a team and we all attack as a team. He has buy-in to that.”
Regardless of whether or not Shaqiri ultimately proves a success, the money spent to acquire a player of that standing, alongside signing proven MLS commodities like Przybylko, proves just how serious chairman Joe Mansueto is about restoring success to a club that has made the MLS Cup Playoffs just twice in its last 11 seasons.
“The end goal is to always be as successful as we can be. And we have an owner that I think is going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens,” Hendrickson continued. “He’s a Chicagoan and wants to see success in this city. So we'll do whatever we can.”
The Fire begin their 2022 MLS campaign away to Inter Miami on February 26.