Goalkeeper Matt Pickens' European aspirations led him to train with Irish club Shelbourne four years ago, before he'd played an MLS game. Rather than sign a new deal with MLS after posting 10 shutouts in 27 matches during his first season as a starter, he elected to play out his contract. Trials in England with Norwich and Preston North End didn't pan out, but a visit to Queen's Park Rangers reportedly has led to a deal to start out as the London club's backup.
His departure leaves the experienced Jon Busch as the No. 1 keeper, second-year pro Nick Noble and first-round draft pick Dominic Cervi as the backups.
The keeper question adds to the duties of incoming head coach Denis Hamlett, which already included replacing midfield linchpin Chris Armas, shoring up the scoring, and handling the unique talents and personality of Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
"We had to do what's in the best interest of the team. I feel very confident in Jon Busch and Nick Noble," said Hamlett. "We watched Dominic play for two days, before he went to train with the [U.S.] U-23's. He has certain good starting points and he can hold his own."
Still, Hamlett and his staff have been quietly asking around their loose network of agents and representatives to see what might be out there. The amazingly athletic Busch has played only 11 games since tearing his right ACL in May 2005, after three-plus season as the Crew's starter. He's played 87 regular-season games and is one of the more zealous workers the league has ever seen.
Also on that list of things-to-do is maintain the momentum of last season under former head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, whose arrival coincided with that of Blanco and sparked a 6-3-6 second half of the season that edged Chicago into the playoffs. Osorio looked like a late entry to the Coach of the Year possibilities after the Fire knocked out D.C. United in the conference semifinals, but he bolted soon after the season ended to take the vacant post at Red Bull New York.
"A few of these guys proved they were better than some people said they were because of our record in the first part of the season," said Hamlett, who served as a Chicago assistant coach for nearly a decade, working with Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan prior to Osorio's arrival last summer. "We have some holes to fill, obviously, but I think we have a good core of players coming back, and they know I'll give them a chance."
One of Osorio's midseason additions, Costa Rican forward Paulo Wanchope, retired, leaving one spot open on the Fire frontline.
Invited to join the team in preseason is Polish international forward Tomasz Frankowski, who comes to MLS from English club Wolverhampton and won five league titles with Wisla Krakow. Frankowski, 33, and Virginia Tech forward Patrick Nyarko, taken with the No. 7 overall SuperDraft pick, are the leading candidates to earn a spot up front. Chicago scored just 31 goals last season, tied for 10th in the 13-team league.
One of Hamlett's assistant coaches is former Dallas head coach Mike Jeffries, who knows Nyarko from the stint at as the associate coach at Virginia Tech's ACC rival Duke that preceded his hiring by Chicago. Nyarko will finish his studies before reporting to the team in May.
"He didn't play the one day at the combine and then he progressively got better over the last two days," said Hamlett. "Maybe people shied away from him. But Mike knows him pretty well and for us he was the No. 1 forward available and there's no secret we needed to improve in the attacking end, so we made the best decision."
Hamlett is hoping he can hang onto defender/midfielder Wilman Conde, who played for Osorio at Colombian club Millonarios before joining him in Chicago. Conde is a very different player than Armas, now a Fire assistant coach, yet can buttress the middle.
Blanco is the wild card, somewhat literally, in the Chicago deck. Surrounding him with talent will open up space and lessen the effectiveness of gang-tacking by the opposition.
"Having Blanco in front of the defensive midfield guys gives them confidence," says Fire president John Guppy, who chased Blanco for several months before getting him as a Designated Player. "They know there's an outlet there who can hold the ball up and create something and the ball's not coming straight back."
Hamlett has nearly two months to further integrate Blanco into his team and vice versa, while also imparting his own methods and ideas. This is his first preseason as head coach, but he's gone through plenty of them already.
MLS Preseason Previews
Jan. 28 -- Real Salt Lake
Jan. 29 -- D.C. United
Jan. 30 -- New England
Jan. 31 -- Columbus
Feb. 1 -- FC Dallas