MLS ’11 Preview: Can International Signings Spark a Fire Under Chicago?
Team: Chicago Fire
Coach: Carlos de la Cobos
Last Year’s Finish: 4th Eastern Conference, 10th Overall, 9-9-12
Last year’s Chicago Fire were going through a transition regardless of the tumultuous offseason they’ve had. With the retirement of U.S. legend Brian McBride and MLS veteran C.J. Brown, the team would have had to adjust without its legends. But management, seeing a mid-table finish in a weak Eastern Conference, decided a rebuild was in order and jettisoned some of its bigger (read: more expensive) names. To replaces the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Collins Johns, the team has turned to some international signings and a youth movement. In an Eastern Conference that is again weak this year, even a rebuilt Chicago team could be a playoff contender again.
Key Roster Additions: To fill the role of veteran leader, the Fire picked up Cory Gibbs in the re-entry draft. The defender not only will likely start on the backline but can help young keeper Sean Johnson reduce the 38 goals allowed last season. To score some goals, Chicago turned to Uruguay and signed two forwards: Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves. The two were teammates at Motevideo Wanderers in 2009, so their familiarity should help coordinate the Fire’s attack. Both have scored consistently in their domestic leagues and it behooves Chicago that they do so in the U.S. An under-the-radar trade brings Jon Conway over from Toronto as a stable and veteran backup keeper to young Sean Johnson.
Key Roster Subtractions: Brian McBride’s leadership and veteran presence will be hard to replace, no doubt. He finished last season with six goals and four assists. In the case of addition by subtraction, Freddie Ljungberg made the highly-publicized move to Celtic this offseason after his contract expired. His impact was not quite as expected so hopefully Chicago can put the money to better use. Same for Collins John – another pedigreed international who just didn’t adjust to MLS.
Projected Starters: A guaranteed starter is Sean Johnson, who caught Bob Bradley’s attention and was invited to “Camp Cupcake” last month. He looks to be another in the long-line of overseas-quality American keepers. The backline will be renovated with C.J. Brown’s retirement. Gibbs is almost definitely a starter, and could be joined by two newcomers: Josip Mikulic signed from Zagreb and Jalil Anibaba, their #9 pick in the SuperDraft from the University of North Carolina. Returner Gonzalo Segares could be the other starter on the outside.
Carlos de la Cobos plays both a 4-4-2 and 4-5-1, but with so many new forwards he may play more 4-5-1 at first. Last season’s leading goal scorer Marco Pappa (8) is likely to start on the right and Patrick Nyarko on the right. The cooly nicknamed Baggio Husidic will start in the middle possibly flanked by last year’s starter Logan Pause, who has six caps for the U.S. in his career. Depending on the formation, either Puerari and Chaves will start or the head coach will a midfielder while putting one of the Uruguayans up front.
Player to Watch: Guatemalan international Marco Pappa has three seasons with Chicago and is a key to the team. Not only was he the team’s leading scorer last year, but he is in his fourth year with the club and is one of the more recognizable players. With so many new players to the team in key positions, Pappa is a player who can carry the load while the others catch up to MLS.
Predictions: Chicago saw their future last season, and it was middling. A team with big-name talent that couldn’t finish above the middle of the pack in a weak conference was not a long-term strategy, so management took advantage of McBride and Brown’s retirements to let Ljungberg and Johns walk. These are definite improvements, but their replacements are unknown. Will Puerari and Chaves be able to score more goals than the departed talent? Can youngsters Johnson and Anibaba help reduce the number of goals allowed? Can Gibbs provide McBride-esque leadership? This is a team in transition that looks to have maybe less talent overall than last season, but might have more productive talent. Productive enough to sneak into a playoff spot.
Best Case Scenario: The Uruguayans take to Major League Soccer and provide the goal scoring needed, which is supplemented by a strong and veteran midfield. Gibbs stabilizes a young backline and they are defensively adequate. Chicago grabs a playoff spot and makes a surprising run during the playoffs (whatever the structure looks like).
Worst Case Scenario: Same as last year- the international signings fail to come through and the team looks stuck in neutral. The proud franchise misses another playoffs. The team has to reassess its strategy the next offseason.