A semi-final penalty shoot-out defeat in 2009, a new coach and a season to forget in 2010, the last two years have been nothing short of a rollercoaster for the Chicago Fire. The period that saw the Fire establish themselves as one of the top teams in Major League Soccer has been somewhat forgotten as a year of changes off the pitch and inconsistency on it saw the Fire endure its most difficult season in six years.
Following three consecutive defeats in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Fire parted ways with head coach Denis Hamlett and acquired Carlos de los Cobos from the El Salvador National Team prior to the start of last season. De los Cobos and the Fire missed out on the playoffs for only the second time in its 13-year history – and suffered early round exits in the U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga – but the Fire will be hoping to improve drastically in order not to endure a similar fate this time around.
The main question is, how much will they improve? It is hard to disguise the fact that the Chicago Fire disappointed in several areas last season but fortunately for them, a number of bright spots did surface over the course of the year. A week before the beginning of the 2010 season, the Fire announced they were waiving goalkeeper Jon Busch, a fan favorite and the club’s first choice ‘keeper during the past three seasons. Stepping up in his place was Jim Dykstra, Busch’s back-up who had yet to play a single MLS game. The result was a disaster. Dykstra’s inexperience showed as several mistakes caused the Fire to drop valuable points in the opening stages of the season. Fire technical director Frank Klopas announced last month the Fire had released Dykstra.
So where is the bright spot amongst this? Sean Johnson. Had Busch not been forced to move on and Dykstra fail to fill his shoes, we may have never seen the outstanding potential of the Fire’s stand out rookie last season, or at least this early into his career. With the Fire in desperate need of a reliable pair of hands between the posts, Johnson stepped up and provided the answer. He was solid in goal, had a knack for making spectacular saves, and eventually even earned a call-up to the United States Men’s National Team. No small feat for a rookie. With Johnson establishing himself as the first choice keeper, the Fire can enter the 2011 season confident of knowing they have a safe pair of hands at the back.
The Fire may have been inconsistent all season but the experience some of the younger players gained should make a difference this year for the Fire. Baggio Husidic continued to significant strides of improvement in an attacking midfield role while Steven Kinney gained valuable minutes at the center of the Fire’s defense. Kwame Watson-Siriboe also picked up some important games under his belt which will only benefit him as he looks to slot into the vacated position at the heart of defense following the retirement of C.J. Brown. The acquisition of Cory Gibbs over the off-season will also be a huge boost for a Fire team who shipped in 38 goals last season.
Its defense has hardly been the issue, however. Despite the reunion of former Fulham teammates Brian McBride and Collins John, the Fire failed to deliver up front. The fact that midfielder Marco Pappa led the team with seven goals says it all. If the Fire are to turn around their fortunes this season, they need to be much more effective up front. No one can doubt the quality of McBride, but it came as a disappointment he and his former teammate failed to link up efficiently with each other and the midfield. Both players have moved on – with the former calling an end to an illustrious career – meaning the Fire will need to rely on new options up front.
Patrick Nyarko is one of the best attackers in the squad but few will really expect the Ghanaian and Calen Carr to bang in the goals the Fire so desperately need. Diego Cháves has joined Chicago’s ranks from Uruguayan club Nacional and de los Cobos will be hoping the striker has more success in front of goal than he did last season, where he scored just two goals in 20 appearances for both Nacional and former club Veracruz. Also arriving from Uruguay is the speedy Gaston Puerari. It’s a big risk for the Fire to acquire two forwards with no MLS experience, but if the two can form a good partnership up front, the Fire will soon be able to put last year’s goal scoring woes behind them.
The Fire have also been quick to offload big name failures Freddy Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, a step in the right direction, but also a decision that leaves the Fire as a very young team. With established players such as Pappa, Nyarko, Johnson and Logan Pause, the Fire still have a good foundation but will need the new arrivals to gel with the rest of the squad and quickly adapt to the MLS. A repeat of last season looks out of the question, so long as the Fire can avoid the attacking problems they experienced last season. And with the kick-off of the 2011 season just over a week away, Section 8 and the rest of the Chicago Fire support can look forward in excitement to what this team can achieve this year. If anything, this season should at least bring the Fire rollercoaster closer to the peak they have long been waiting for.
Written by: Jeff Harbert