The elements seem to be in place for Chicago to make its first MLS Cup appearance since 2003, yet how the head coach deals with his superstar could tilt the season one way or the other.
Denis Hamlett played pro ball indoors and outdoors in the United States and after damage to his knees forced an early retirement, he served as an assistant coach for nearly a decade prior to getting the top job prior to the 2008 season.
That stint gave him time to work with Mexican diva Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who came to the Fire midway through the 2007 season and aside from a few spats with referees and regular criticism from opposing coaches and players about his amazing repertoire of dives, has contributed on the field and certainly pumped up the gate at Toyota Park - nearly 3,000 per game -- and other MLS venues.
Now, though, the Hamlett-Blanco synergy appears to be overheating. After MLS signed him to a one-year extension following his 1 ½ seasons as a Designated Player, which he still is, he declared he wouldn't play in the league after this season, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.
"I want to return to Mexico or see offers [in MLS] from another team, but this is my last year with the Fire," said Blanco, who has scored 11 goals and registered 18 assists in Chicago. "I think I've made an impact here. But when this season ends, I'll look for other options."
Upon signing his new deal in early January, Blanco had said, "I'm excited to be back next season. I'm very happy in Chicago and I look forward to another year with my teammates. I'm optimistic about 2009 and will continue to work hard to bring a championship to our fans."
That's not really a contradiction, it's Blanco, whose harsh upbringing in a dangerous barrio is cited by some observers as partial cause of his occasionally outrageous fits of temper as well as spectacular and unpredictable fakes, feints, and flicks. He's only under contract for this season, anyway, and last year mused about a possible return to the Mexican League, so why blurt out anything at the team's kickoff luncheon a week and a half ago?
As he continued speaking, it became clear, at least in his mind, the probable source of his frustration. He had not started in the Fire's opener, a 3-1 win, because of a knee problem that had bothered him in preseason. He came on late in the game and clinched the victory in stoppage time with a typically wicked free kick.
"The coach said I'm not well enough yet, and I respect his decision," said Blanco. "But I'm fine. Those are the coach's decisions, and if I'm on the bench, well, then I'm on the bench. Everyone is trying to get to the final.
"From my point of view, I think we need midfielders, but those are the coach's decisions. And we have eight defenders which, honestly, is a lot to me."
How Hamlett manages this outburst from his irascible, irrepressible star is an early pop quiz in advanced pro coaching. Blanco didn't play last weekend in a 1-0 victory against New York, but played all 90 minutes in a midweek friendly against a college team. If the knee was a problem it doesn't appear to be one now.
Hamlett may simply have wanted to see how Blanco, who will be 36 this season, and the knee reacted to playing a full game as he ponders his personnel decisions. Or he may have been trying to make a point.
Last year, Polish striker Tomasz Frankowski also dissed Hamlett publicly yet he scored only two goals in 17 games (seven starts) and left after the Fire's season concluded at the same point it had in 2007, in the Eastern Conference final. Taking a tirade from Blanco, a league icon on and off the field, is another matter. When he rants, people sometimes roll their eyes, but they listen.
Any pro coach will tell you a crucial aspect of the job is managing players, keeping things rolling while retaining control, motivating the starters while not discouraging or angering the backups, riding out rough spots without roiling the waters too much. There are few elements of coaching more stressful than dealing with a occasionally brilliant, always compelling, sometimes infuriating personality like Blanco, who might be back in the groove in a week or two if he gets back on the field. But if he doesn't ....
Hamlett has played it cool but direct to this point, praising the contributions of second-year players Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa as justification for using Blanco and Chris Rolfe off the bench. Heading into a game Saturday at San Jose, the Fire shares first place with the Revs with two wins and a tie, but its attack - stagnant and methodical for much of those three games -- could obviously benefit from the presence of catalysts like Blanco and Rolfe.
This could, and probably should, simply blow over, a typical, temporary rift between a benched superstar and the man in charge. Yet the improvement of Pappa and Nyarko adds them to the list of candidates, along with Blanco, Rolfe, Justin Mapp and rookie Baggio Husidic, to play attacking roles in support of Brian McBride. Making those decisions and massaging a superstar ego play just as vital a role in success as tactics and systems of play.
Denis Hamlett, second-year head coach, has already cited the importance of winning the conference so as not to play, and lose, the conference final on the road, as was the case last year in Columbus.
He has the means to reach MLS Cup - he must also utilize the methods.