The Chicago Fire enter 2011 coming off one of the worst seasons in club history. For only the second time since its debut season of 1998, the Fire missed the playoffs. That disappointing performance might have led to some other coaches being given the boot, but head coach Carlos De Los Cobos is back to try and improve on a sub-par first season.
If the Fire plan on making noise in the wide-open Eastern Conference, it will take some inspired efforts from new faces, particularly up top, where newly-acquired Uruguayan forwards Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari have been called on to lead the attack.
Chicago's success will depend on how the team adapts to the 3-5-2 formation De Los Cobos has chosen to employ. Marco Pappa remains the key catalyst for the Fire, while Patrick Nyarko is sure to still play a key role offensively.
Here is my Fox Soccer preview of a Fire squad that should contend for one of the final playoff spots, but a team that could wind up struggling badly in a new system.
Here are some more thoughts on the 2011 Chicago Fire:
2011 CHICAGO FIRE
They'll win because: The 3-5-2 formation gives opponents trouble and the Uruguayans flourish in a new league.
They'll lose because: The 3-5-2 plays more like a 5-3-2 and a lack of goal production dooms the Fire to a slow start that leads to an early departure by De Los Cobos.
Player who could break out: Diego Chaves
Player who could regress: Sean Johnson
Player who needs to improve on 2010: Gonzalo Segares
Newcomer to watch: Jalil Anibaba. The rookie defender is one to watch, a potential Rookie of the Year candidate.
Projected Finish: The Fire have the pieces to challenge for a playoff spot, but success will be based on whether the new formation can work in MLS. If the Uruguayans can score, and the 3-5-2 can defend while also producing chances, Chicago can challenge for one of the final playoff spots. If the Uruguayans struggle, and the defense has a tough time with the new formation, you could see a new coach on the Fire sidelines by the summer.
What do you think of the Chicago Fire's chances this season? Like the idea of the 3-5-2, or worried it won't work? Excited to see Sean Johnson build on his rookie year?
Share your thoughts below.