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The boys from Bridgeview return to the field this season with high hopes despite a new coach and the loss of key players.

After crashing out of the playoffs in disappointing fashion yet again in 2009, the Chicago Fire hope to get the monkey off its back in 2010. Frank Klopas and the Fire front office wasted no time in attempting to reverse the Eastern Conference finals curse by firing Denis Hamlett and then bringing in experienced Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos.

The changes continued, as the Fire also needed to replace the departing Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chris Rolfe, and Gonzalo Segares. In their stead they brought in former Fulham striker and teammate of Brian McBride, Collins John; Polish youngster Krzysztof Krol; and El Salvadoran playmaker Julio Martinez.

With a coach who hardly speaks English, and a forward who lost his way, the Fire have certainly taken some creative risks in rebuilding the team for 2010, but early indications are that this franchise will find themselves in the mix at the end of the year once again.

Dearly Departed:

Cuauhtemoc Blanco – Despite the wishes of the Fire front office, Blanco said goodbye to Chicago after three quality seasons. Although there are rumors of a possible loan return after the Clausura ends with Veracruz, it seems the Fire have made the necessary changes to replace the Mexican legend. However, somehow I doubt they would turn him down if he wanted back.

Chris Rolfe – Chicago will dearly miss Rolfe in 2010 as the attacking midfielder made the jump across the pond to Aalborg in the Danish league this winter. In five seasons with the Fire, Rolfe scored 36 goals and became a crowd favorite with his creative passing and excellent speed.

Gonzalo Segares - After five seasons at left back for the Fire, Segares headed off to Cyprus to play for Apollon Limassol. Though the Costa Rican international will be missed, he is certainly easier for the Fire to replace than Blanco or Rolfe.

Denis Hamlett - Denis Hamlett closed out over a decade of service with the Chicago Fire in disappointing fashion, falling in penalty kicks to surprise eventual champion Real Salt Lake. It is funny how a few bounces the wrong way can change the course of a career. Had Chicago been able to close out Real Salt Lake in a shoot out, Hamlett very well may have remained at the helm.

New Faces:

Carlos de los Cobos - If you read my article, Chicago Fire in need of a new star, I spoke of the possibilities of the Fire bringing in a high profile Hispanic player to replace Blanco. Well, instead that high profile player came in the form of new head coach Carlos de los Cobos. The former Mexican international who once managed the legendary Club America and most recently the El Salvadoran national team, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Fire that many MLS teams will envy.

Collins John - Nobody saw this coming in the offseason, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The once highly touted Liberian prospect has fallen off the map after a great season at Fulham in 2005-2006 in which he netted 11 goals in just 15 starts. During his time at Fulham he played alongside Brian McBride, and the Fire hope their reuniting will beef up a lackluster offense. If John’s preseason performances are any indication, he very well may regain his form here in MLS.

Krzysztof Krol - The large Polish population in Chicago will certainly be watching Krol closely this year as the young Polish defender has high hopes of becoming a star. The former Real Madrid C player is on loan from Jagiellonia Bialystok in Poland and is in competition for the starting left back spot. However, thus far it appears that de los Cobos is not exactly settled on the youngster and has publicly admitted to considering the signing of another player.

Julio Martinez - In hopes to offset the loss of Rolfe, de los Cobos brought in one of his El Salvadoran midfielders in Martinez. The outside midfielder is on loan from Mexican club Leon, and looks to provide a deadly midfield combination with Marco Pappa.



Projected lineup:

Jon Busch (GK) - Passionate leader had a great 2009 and was unlucky to be outdone by Nick Rimando in the Eastern Conference finals.

Dasan Robinson (D) - If he can stay free of injuries Robinson has proven to be an quality option at defense.

CJ Brown (D) - He may have been here for a while, but he is still rock solid in the back.

Wilman Conde (D) – Another defender who is vital to the success of the Fire, but he needs to stay healthy for the full season.

Krzysztof Krol (D) – De los Cobos has been exploring other options at left back, even looking into signing another player, but I still think we could see Krol get some starts in the back.

Marco Pappa (M) - After a stellar 2009 the Fire welcome Pappa back with open arms and hope he can take on even more responsibility in the attack this year.

Julio Martinez (M) – Has big shoes to fill in the midfield, but adding a player with international experience to an MLS roster is always a good thing.

Logan Pause (M) - Will be looked upon to be the glue that holds the midfield together.

John Thorrington (M) - He has the opportunity to make people forget about losing Blanco really quick if he can help get the offense going.

Collins John (F) - Could prove to be an excellent pick up by the Fire front office, as the man has already proven he can score goals at a very high level.

Brian McBride (F) - The Fire hope that McBride will benefit greatly from the addition of John, as the veteran prepares for what is likely one of his last few seasons.

Best of the Rest: Patrick Nyarko, Justin Mapp, Baggio Husidic, Tim Ward, Calen Carr, Mike Banner

Season Storylines:

Can the Fire score goals? - Although the 2009 team possessed many worthy attackers, they often failed to score goals. Chicago was competitive in nearly every single match because of their defense. If the Fire can find a way to score more goals they may just have found a way to win an MLS title.

Winning a title - The Fire has fallen in the Eastern Conference finals in four of the last five seasons. While the organization is certainly one of the best in the MLS, a team can only fall short so many times before the fans start to get restless.

Resurgence of Collins John - Just five years ago this young Liberian was primed to be the next big thing in the English Premier League. Things did not work out, and the question is can he return to form here with the Fire or will the gamble not pay off?

Predicted Placement: Despite the loss of some key players, Chicago has certainly filled the spots with quality talent. On top of that, they also snagged a quality coach with high level international experience. Expect to see the Fire in the playoffs and once again challenging for the MLS Cup.

Did you know? The Chicago Fire has been a part of every postseason but one in their 12 year history.

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