By Ridge Mahoney
The Fire attained its objective last year of getting back into the playoffs after falling short in in 2010 and 2011. Now comes the hard part.
A 17-11-6 record marked its best season since 2003 but garnered only a fourth-place finish in a tough Eastern Conference race. There were notable individual accomplishments, headed by defender Austin Berry’s selection as Rookie of the Year and young goalkeeper Sean Johnson’s continuing presence on the U.S. national team. The season ended disappointingly with a 2-1 playoff loss to Houston in which, despite the homefield advantage and better regular-season record, Chicago wasn’t the better team.
Now head coach Frank Klopas takes on perhaps the most difficult task in MLS: making a postseason participant into a serious title contender. He’s revamped the midfield and added a veteran forward (see below) in a continuation of the process that last year lured ex-Fire forward Chris Rolfe back to MLS and added Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald.
“They brought in guys who filled holes they were trying to fill and it’s been pretty much a seamless transition,” said Rolfe, who scored eight goals in 22 matches after signing as a free agent last April. “We have the talent and we’ve proven we can play with the best teams in the league and beat them, even on the road, so that’s something we have to keep our focus on and find our confidence in there.”
Chicago doubled its total of road victories by winning six last year, including conference champion Sporting Kansas City and the Red Bulls. The total wins nearly doubled as well from nine to 17 (the Fire tied an incredible 16 games in 2011). Chicago is trending in the right direction but the goal this year is to reach its first MLS Cup in a decade; it lost to San Jose, 4-2, in MLS Cup 2003.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. The midfield has been revamped in the wake of Marco Pappa’s move to Heerenveen (in August), Pavel Pardo’s retirement and the loan of Alvaro Fernandez to a team in Qatar. Trades brought Joel Lindpere (from New York), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado), and Dilly Duka (Columbus). And all have moved into the starting lineup, with returnee Patrick Nyarko first choice on the right.
Duka has taken up the left side of a midfield anchored by Lindpere and Larentowicz, with holding mid Logan Pause pushed to right back. The other trade acquisition, well-traveled forward Maicon Santos, has shared time up top in preseason with MacDonald. Striker Guillermo Franco retired last month after playing only three games as a late-season signing.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The Fire figured it out last year, and with a full preseason to work in his new midfield (which also includes returnees Alex, Corben Bone, and Daniel Paladini) and find the best fits between Nyarko, Rolfe, MacDonald and Santos, Klopas will have a lot of weapons. Santos will push MacDonald for a starting spot and is also of value coming off the bench to test tiring defenders. The back line should be tighter with the center back pairing of Berry and Arne Freidrich in its second year and could also get a boost from Logan’s experience if his shift to right back is more or less permanent.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Time will be needed to replace the Pause-Pardo pairing in central midfield and there’s no guarantee Pause can handle the demands at right back, where 1-v-1 defending is essential. The forwards are capable, but counting on each of them to score seven or eight goals is not as reassuring of sending out a bona fide double-figures guy, as Dynamo Will Bruin showed by scoring both of his team’s goals in that playoff game. Quincy Amarikwa, who was on trial during preseason, is not that guy. Last season wasn’t a great one for left back Gonzalo Segares; can he rebound back to his best,or does somebody else take the job?
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Nyarko’s speed is always a threat, and Rolfe’s knack for threading his way through traffic enables him to slip balls into the seams or win free kicks in good positions. The move out of Columbus seems to have revived Duka, whose sharp play featured prominently in several preseason games. Berry’s mix of toughness and savvy is remarkable given his relative lack of pro experience, and Johnson is more than capable of the amazing save.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montreal | New England | New York | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Real Salt Lake | Seattle | Vancouver | San Jose