Part of the league’s first expansion in 1998, the Chicago Fire have proven a flagship franchise in the league. MLS Cup champions in their inaugural season, the club was also the top team in the old Central Division in 2000 and 2001 and won the Supporters Shield as the top team in the MLS regular season in 2003 — yet has not won another league crown since its 1998 triumph. After missing the playoffs in both 2010 and 2011, the Fire returned to the postseason in 2012 before falling to the 5th-place Houston Dynamo 2-1 at Toyota Park in the Chicago suburbs.
Fire manager Frank Klopas, who took as interim manager in 2011 before being named to the head post officially in 2012, knows that the margin for error is slim in a tough Eastern Conference field. A strong preseason offers hope, but Klopas and his staff must keep that intensity going throughout the regular season just to reach the postseason bracket.
Can the Fire remain among the elite of the Eastern Conference in 2013? Will the club find a way to recapture the giddy highs of their inaugural season with Chicago’s second MLS Cup?
Chicago opened their preseason in Illinois with a cupcake match, shuffling a total of 28 players into their 2-0 victory over Florida Gulf Coast University. Three days later they fell to the Columbus Crew 2-1 in their first test of the season against MLS competition, 2013 MLS SuperDraft pick Yazid Atouba grabbing the Fire’s lone goal in the defeat.
Atouba scored his second goal for Chicago as the club drew 1-1 against Chivas USA in the first match of a California sojourn. They would defeat the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 in their next scrimmage, Jeff Larentowicz converting a late penalty kick for the slim victory.
The Fire then traveled to the opposite coast for the Carolina Challenge Cup. A revamped midfield steered Chicago to an opening 3-2 come-from-behind victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion Houston Dynamo. They would defeat USL Pro side Charleston Battery 2-1 in their next match, defender Austin Berry and striker Alex scoring to erase an early Battery lead. Their final match would end in a draw, the Vancouver Whitecaps neutralizing a second-half Maicon Santos lead on a Darren Mattocks penalty conversion. The Fire ended their preseason 4-1-2 after their trip to Charleston.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
After starting 59 of the Fire’s last 64 regular-season matches over the past two seasons, Sean Johnson returns in 2013 with the number-one spot in goal locked down. Drafted in the 2010 SuperDraft, Johnson could position himself for inclusion in the U.S. men’s national team roster for the 2014 World Cup with a strong MLS performance this season. Behind him on the depth chart is 24-year-old Italian keeper Paolo Tornaghi, who went 1-1-1 in three starts in his first MLS season. They are the only two goalkeepers on Chicago’s depth chart, leaving Klopas with just two options at the last line of defense.
Arne Friedrich and 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry return as the incumbents in the center of one of the strongest back lines in MLS. Captain Logan Pause, pushed out of midfield toward the right wingback slot, will press last year’s starter Jalil Anibaba for starting time at fullback. Steven Kinney and Michael Videira add depth out right. On the left, Gonzalo Segares continues to anchor that side of the defense as he has for most of the past decade. Anibaba also offers backup at his natural central position, as does left fullback backup Hunter Jumper. The team has no prospects younger than 24 at any position along the back four, meaning either that they should be experienced throughout their lineup in 2013 or that injuries could decimate the defense quickly.
The team brought in Jeff Larentowicz from Colorado and Joel Lindpere from New York to overhaul the center of the midfield in Chicago. They have spent the entire preseason building chemistry with one another on the pitch, and the partnership should pay increasing dividends as the synergy between the two increases. The outside spots fall on the shoulders of wingers Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko. Robbie Rogers, who recently announced his retirement at just 25 years old, would challenge both for a spot on the wing were he to return to MLS. 2013 SuperDraft pick Yazid Atouba could feature anywhere throughout the midfield if and/or when he is finally signed, and the team also has versatile options in Videira (who can play in defense or midfield), Corben Bone, Wells Thompson and Alex.
Up front, Dutch Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald should be better integrated into the side after joining Chicago midway through the 2012 season. Former DC United striker Maicon Santos should challenge incumbent staffer Chris Rolfe for starting time at striker, while Nyarko and Alex can also play further forward. Quincy Amarikwa and Kellen Gulley offer potential substitute options off the bench as well.
The Eastern Conference is only getting tougher in 2013, making the task of reaching the playoffs that much tougher for a Fire team that has shifted a lot of parts in the offseason. Injuries could challenge Chicago’s depth at several positions, but the Fire have the personnel to challenge any other side in their division for a postseason berth. 1998 might be a distant dream, but there is still plenty of hope in the Windy City as the season looms.