The arrival of flamboyant Mexican attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco is just one of several major changes for the Chicago Fire, the expansion champion of 1998 that has yet to bag a second league title.
At a team golf outing two days after a crucial 1-0 victory over Columbus lifted Chicago into the playoff tier, Fire officials and players finally found a weakness in the game of Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Not his game, soccer, but his golf game. When it comes to golf, he doesn't. Fortunately, neither does head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, and this is just one more example of how the new coach and the club's most expensive player are working in sync.
"I personally believe that Cuauhtemoc not only has brought creativity and vision and that final pass to this club, but also he has been spot-on as far as being a professional," says Osorio, who took over from Dave Sarachan in June and won four of his first seven games to nudge Chicago into eighth place.
"He comes to train every day, he shows a great enthusiasm for the game, his attitude is always positive. And when you have players like him of that caliber coming to training every day and giving 100 percent, that is contagious and all the players do the same."
Blanco scored on his Fire debut in a friendly against Glasgow Celtic and assisted on Chicago's first goal in his MLS debut, a 3-0 thrashing of Toronto FC in which he drew a league record 12 fouls. But he kept his cool.
"He's not looking for any preferential treatment, and he's really fitted in well," says Fire president and general manager John Guppy. "He's a great competitor and a jokester. He likes to prank around a little bit with the guys.
"He uses his body so well. If you really watch him closely, in terms of how he positions his body and shields the ball, it's infuriating, because you think the ball is there, and perhaps he's a little bit slow, and yet you can't get there. He's not a big guy. Realistically he's about 5-10, but he plays big. Nobody pushes him off the ball."
In his first seven games, Blanco scored two goals and added four assists while committing only four fouls and receiving just one caution. He attracts defenders like honey draws bees, yet he's not the only significant change to the Fire roster.
Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope, who had been flirting with MLS for most of this decade, came aboard in late July. Following Osorio, who bought out his contract with Colombian club Millonarios to take the Chicago job, to MLS was defender Wilman Conde, a 25-year-old that Osorio slid right into the back line against Columbus.
In a driving rain at Columbus Crew Stadium, Conde hit a long ball out of the back that Wanchope ran onto to score his second league goal with 25 minutes to play. Chicago fended off the Crew for the rest of the match to leapfrog it into the playoff octet.
This is a season of transition for Chicago. Changes abound on and off the field, in the front office, and at the top. Since winning the MLS championship as an expansion team in 1998, the Fire has twice reached the final (2000 and 2003) but hasn't won another league title. It opened its new stadium, Toyota Park, last year, yet after selling out its official opener (June 25 against New York) it sold out just one more game, the season finale against Columbus.
Operator-investor AEG partially bankrolled the building of Toyota Park yet invested little in promotion and marketing of the team prior to selling its interests in both the team and the facility to Andell Holdings, LLC, for a price estimated at $34 million. Andell will run the facility, which is owned by the Village of Bridgeview.
"It's not a company, per se, it's a family investment group," says Guppy of the new ownership group headed by Andrew Hautpman, who grew up playing soccer on Long Island before earning an MBA from Harvard and venturing into the business world. "They're going to bring a lot of ideas and a lot of resources and I think it's going to be great for the Fire.
"As I look around the league, I'm not sure if I'd trade places with anybody else in my situation. It's a great market. We've got great fans, It's a good team, a tremendous stadium. The opportunity is endless."
Guppy believes the Fire can average 16,000 consistently yet acknowledges those numbers alone won't push the Fire into the black. The team is the final year of its television deal and hopes to sign a contract by which a station and/or regional network will pay to televise Fire games.
The presence of Blanco also offers revenue opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be possible. His league home debut was a sellout (20,358) and Chicago drew 18,453 for his second Toyota Park appearance. Both of those figures were higher than any crowd the Fire drew last year aside from the Toyota Park opener and season finale.
"We're getting paid six figures for exhibition games," says Guppy. "We were lucky to get $10,000 in the past. Rather than pay a couple of hundred thousand dollars for our preseason, we stand to make a few hundred thousand because a lot of teams want to host us and play us. That's a half-million-dollar swing, which is a lot for a business of our size."
At a salary of $2.7 million per year, Blanco is making more money in the history of MLS than any other player except David Beckham, and Chicago is on the hook for three years. So far, there's no sign of resentment in the Fire locker room or on the field as Blanco strives to join the list of great Fire players.
"He's earned out respect from day one," says midfielder Chris Armas, who joined the team from the Galaxy in the 1998 expansion draft. "Players I've watched in the past, whether they be [Hristo Stoichkov] or Peter Nowak or Lubos Kubik, I watched them because there's always something you can learn from them.
"Cuauhtemoc is one of those guys. He's a professional on and off the field, and I've seen him respond to three-games-in-seven-days where he didn't want to come off the field for one minute because he wants to win."
For all the attention focused on Blanco and Wanchope, Osorio had to work hard to get Conde away from Millonarios, and considers him just as vital a cog in the team's final portion of the season and, presumably, the playoffs. Chicago used a major allocation, worth $250,000, and plus a bit more cash to acquire him.
"Although I do enjoy the individual technique of the players, I am a coach that believes in one-nils and as long you keep a clean sheet you have a chance to win the game, and that's been our major change," says Osorio, a native of Colombia whose speech also carries influence and usages picked up during five seasons as an assistant coach with Manchester City.
"The most important thing about Cuauhtemoc is his attitude, his commitment to improve and train hard every day. He's been absolutely brilliant and it rubs off on the players."
Blanco is thus destined to be one of the guys even if he can't swing the sticks on the course.
"Even though he didn't play at all, he says it was a good event," a translator said to a question about the golf outing. "He says he gets along with everyone. They translate for him, and they go out to dinner as a team.
"In the dressing room, that's where the team really comes together."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)