By THOMAS FLOYD
Dan Gargan's path to the Windy City has been anything but a breeze.
First, there was the torn knee ligament that threw a wrench in his promising career. Then, his abrupt 2008 retirement. A year rededicating himself to the game followed, as did a return to the top flight with Toronto FC. But frustration with the organization's "arrogance" grew before a trade shipped him away.
Yes, the twists and turns of Gargan's story are plentiful. In his eight months with the Chicago Fire, however, the 29-year-old has finally found a situation as stable as the presence he brings on the field, regaining his status as one of the league's more reliable right backs while playing for coach Frank Klopas' on-the-rise squad.
"I was kind of kept in the dark for a little while, at least to my face," Gargan said of the late-July deal that brought him from Toronto to the Fire. "But as it happened, it was a good thing for me. I got to come down here to Chicago to play for a better team and a really good organization."
After starting nine matches of the Fire's last-season push toward nearly securing a playoff berth last year, and also playing a key role in the team's run to the U.S. Open Cup final, Gargan this season has picked up where he left off, turning in three workmanlike shifts thus far for Chicago (1-1-2).
"Dan's got a winning attitude," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "He brings that mentality every single day in training, and you see it translate in games. He genuinely cares about the guys around him, which is important. He also has a strong personality, demanding a lot from himself and demanding a lot from his teammates."
When Chicago travels north of the border for Saturday's match against Toronto, it will mark Gargan's first trip to BMO Field in visiting colors since the trade, though he did play and score against his old club in the Fire's 2-0 home win last August.
Gargan enjoyed a career season with Toronto after signing in March 2010 under then-coach Preki, starting 25 games while notching a goal and four assists. But the subsequent offseason, Toronto brought in former Dutch international and Ajax assistant Aron Winter to lead the club.
As Winter implemented the Netherlands' iconic "total football" philosophy, he quickly began the process of turning over the Toronto roster in search of players who best fit his system.
"When they brought in the new coaching staff, they had a different plan, and it was difficult to adjust to it," Gargan recalled. "I think they came in with a bit of an arrogance and disrespect toward the league. It's a tough league, and there are a lot of good players in the league. I don't think that they gave that enough credit."
Gargan started nine games for Toronto last year before he was, as part of the club's summer fire sale, sent to Chicago with a second-round pick for defender Dasan Robinson. Toronto, meanwhile, ultimately finished 6-13-15 in 2011, and the team is 0-5-0 to start this season.
"It was kind of two polar opposites with them coming in, with them on one side and this league on the other," Gargan said. "It's a league unlike any other, in terms of the traveling and the parity, and there are a lot of different things I don't think they took into enough account.
"But it's OK. It's in the past. … They're definitely not a bad team, and I'd like to say that, aside from this weekend, hopefully they find their stride."
That Toronto exit has been far from the only unexpected bump in the road for Gargan. An unheralded Georgetown product, Gargan had to wait until the fourth round of the 2005 supplemental draft to hear his name called by the Colorado Rapids.
After Gargan started 31 games for the Rapids in three years, he tore his ACL in August 2007. He was then released by Colorado early in the 2008 campaign, and although he promptly signed with Chivas USA, he retired two weeks later without playing a match.
"Stepping away from the game that you love is never an easy thing, and it was a lot of different factors that kind of added into my decision," Gargan explained. "Looking back on it, I still feel like I made the right decision. … It allowed me to focus on what were my priorities at the time, and then it allowed me to also come back into the game and come back into the league completely focused."
When Gargan made his return a year later, with his head cleared and his knee fully healthy, he found he was stuck in MLS limbo by the league's regulations at the time regarding player rights.
As a result, he signed with the second-tier Puerto Rico Islanders midway through the 2009 season. While he called it a "humbling" time, the Philadelphia native also said his stint with Puerto Rico afforded him "amazing experiences and opportunities," including the chance to take part in an unlikely run to the CONCACAF Champions League.
"It doesn't really surprise me that a guy of his character and of his personality was able to [come back]," Pause said. "Not a lot of guys can step away from the game and come back and be just as passionate and just as motivated and just as committed."
At this point, it's safe to say Gargan's career has gone against the grain. Now, as an everyday starter for a Fire team he feels has the pieces to compete in the Eastern Conference, Gargan is officially back on track — even if, in his words, it "wasn't the most direct route."
"I guess the path isn't always straight, but it's the right one," Gargan said. "So I'm just trying to keep my eyes forward."