Photo by Tracy Allen/ISIPhotos.com
By TYLER DAY
A promising pre-season and a revamped midfield have the Chicago Fire poised to erase the bitter taste of last year’s late-season collapse.
Just five months ago in mid-September 2012, fresh off seven wins in eight matches, the Fire stood second in the Eastern Conference ready for a deep playoff run. Having missed the playoffs the two previous seasons, the club was surging thanks to a stalwart defense and opportunistic goal scoring.
But then the unraveling began with a 2-0 defeat at Sporting Kansas City and the Fire managed only one win in its final five regular season contests. That dropped them to fourth in the East and into a one-game playoff with Houston. The Fire fell behind early at home and lost 2-1 to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Dynamo.
In the ensuing months, the Fire were active acquiring new players, particular in the midfield. The team landed Joel Lindpere from the New York Red Bulls, and shortly after Jeff Larentowicz in a trade with the Colorado Rapids, shoring up the club’s interior after the retirement of Mexican international Pavel Pardo and the departure of Alvaro Fernandez on loan to Al Rayyan.
In early February, the Fire then added the often-beleaguered Dilly Duka from Columbus to round out the overhauled midfield. The deal sent the speedy Dominic Oduro to Columbus, perhaps leaving a void of pace and creativity for the squad in 2013.
The keys to the Fire’s chances in 2013 will be how the team’s rebuild midfield can come together, and who Frank Klopas finds to be the team’s go-to goal scorer.
Here is a closer look at the Chicago Fire heading into the 2013 MLS season:
CHICAGO FIRE SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 17-11-6, 57 points (fourth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Joel Lindpere, M Jeff Larentowicz, M Dilly Duka, M Brendan King, F Maicon Santos.
KEY LOSSES: M Pavel Pardo, F Guillermo Franco, M Alvaro Fernandez, F Federico Puppo, F Dominic Oduro, GK Jay Nolly.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: M Dilly Duka – The Fire gave up a considerable amount of pace and attacking options when they flipped Dominic Oduro for Duka (and the rights to Robbie Rodgers). The former Columbus Crew player will be relied upon early to provide a spark along the wing. Duka has shown flashes in the past of the potential that earned him the eighth overall selection in 2010, but injuries and conflict between him and Columbus led to a difficult 2012 season. He and the Fire will be hoping that a change of scenery will help jump-start his career.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Chris Rolfe – With a lack of depth of front, the Fire may need to rely on 2012’s team MVP even more. Last year he finished with team high 8 goals and 3 assists, and if the Fire are to become legitimate contenders, he will need to stay healthy to put pressure on opposing backlines.
The strength of the Fire should again be its defense, building off last year’s 41 goals allowed, the second-lowest total in the East.
With the midfield acquisitions, Fire captain Logan Pause will challenge Jalil Anibaba for starter’s minutes at right back. The rest of the defense, which center back tandem of Arne Friedrich and 2012’s MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, and veteran Gonzalo Segares at left back, offers the Fire stability and consistency heading into the season.
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson enters the 2013 season riding a wave of confidence after earning his first U.S. Men’s National Team start. He enjoyed a strong run of form in the second-half of the 2012 season and should only continue to mature and improve.
The most encouraging aspect of the team’s off-season has been the reconstruction of the midfield. The team addressed its need for bite in the midfield with the arrivals of Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere.
“We needed to get a little tougher in the middle and with Jeff and Joel we bring that grittiness and experience, and quality,” Frank Klopas said. “Jeff has won a championship before and Joel shows up every game ready to give it everything he has.”
Dilly Duka’s arrival from Columbus could wind up being one of the most important acquisitions of the off-season. Though he has yet to really have a breakout season, Duka has long been considered one of the most skilled young midfielders in the league. The Fire will be banking on being able to showcase the former U.S. Under-23 midfielder and helping him have a breakout season.
The real concern as the season progresses will be whether the forward tandem of Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald will be able to withstand the grind of the campaign. The duo showed at times last year they can create chances, and an entire season together will only add more comfort between the two, but the club’s real lack of depth up front may pose a problem as the season goes on.
The Fire did add Maicon Santos in the Re-Entry Draft, and him finding his form would help. The team could also benefit from an early emergence of the promising Cameroonian forward Yazid Atouba, who the team drafted with its only pick in this year’s draft. He played well throughout the preseason and should earn a contract with the club. Although Klopas says he is satisfied with his team entering the season, they could perhaps look to add a player up front in the summer window.
If the preseason is any indication, the club could be in for big things in the upcoming campaign. They finished 5-1-3 overall, including winning the Carolina Challenge Cup.
They will try to maintain that momentum with a difficult schedule out of the gate. In addition to an opening visit to Los Angeles to play the MLS Champion Galaxy, the team has early away matches vs. Sporting Kansas City and Houston.
“I think we pushed some guys the way we wanted to and it’s a start,” Klopas said. “Hopefully at the end of the season we can lift another trophy.”