Goal.com MLS Guidebook: The 2011 Chicago Fire

After falling just one game short of the MLS Cup final in three of the last four seasons, the Chicago Fire had quite a disappointing 2010 campaign. On top of missing the playoffs for just the second time in its 13 year history, the Fire also faced early exits in both the U.S. Open Cup and the SuperLiga.

Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos was just one of the many new faces at Toyota Park in 2010, as the Fire brought in players with European experience like Nery Castillo, Collins John, and Freddie Ljungberg in an attempt to fill the void left by Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe.

Unfortunately for the Fire and its fans, the team could never win consistently throughout the season and will head into 2011 with a high demand for improvement.

What went right?

Let’s not sugarcoat this – there aren't many good things to say about the 2010 season for the Fire. However, despite the team's struggles much of the year, there were a few young players that showed great promise for the future.

Steven Kinney, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, and Baggio Husidic all gained valuable experience and showed flashes of quality that has the Fire faithful optimistic about the 2011 season. Additionally, the late season acquisition of Serbian midfielder Bratislav Ristic energized Chicago.

Yet by far the best thing that happened for Chicago was the discovery of goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The rookie out of Snellville, Ga. kept the Fire in games with spectacular saves, and the youngster even earned himself a call up to the U.S. national team this winter because of his standout play. In Johnson, the Fire has an excellent keeper for years to come, provided he does not outgrow them and head to Europe.

What went wrong?

Chicago’s biggest problem in 2010, among other things, was the inability to produce goals. Marco Pappa led Chicago with a measly seven strikes. The team took a gamble with the signing of Collins John, but in the end, despite his reunion up top with Brian McBride, the two came nowhere near the production level of Blanco and Rolfe.

When Ljungberg and Castillo joined mid season things looked to be on the rise, but neither of those players, particularly Castillo, added much to right the already sinking ship. The Ljungberg move helped a little, but should have been made at the beginning of the season.

Biggest surprises?

While the 2010 season contained multiple twists and turns for the Chicago Fire, the largest surprise was still the emergence of Sean Johnson. Completely unknown, Johnson did not become the starter until the halfway mark, and he exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Outside of Johnson, another surprise was the lack of congruency achieved throughout the season despite the presence of veterans Brian McBride and CJ Brown. The team never found itself all year, and with Brown in the back and McBride up top one would think things would have been more stable.

Biggest disappointments?

I have a bone to pick with my Goal.com colleague, Zac Lee Rigg. He recently mentioned that Mista was the worst DP signing ever in the league, but I would wager my mortgage that Nery Castillo should grab that title hands down.

Everybody, including yours truly, thought the Castillo move was brilliant. A struggling once quality player comes to once quality now struggling team: a win-win situation right? Wrong. Castillo never seemed happy in Chicago and it showed in his performances on the field. The move backfired, with the player and the team never looking comfortable together.

Biggest need?

This won’t come as a shocker to anyone who has watched Chicago play the past few years, but Chicago desperately needs a goal-scorer. Not since 2004 with Damani Ralph has the Fire had a player score double digits in a season. Only time will tell if the signing of Uruguayan strikers Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves will fill that void, but it appears to be a step in the right direction. Then again, so did Collins John and Nery Castillo.

Another area that had to be addressed was some veteran leadership. With the departure of Brown and McBride, the already young Fire roster looked, well, younger. With the pickup of Cory Gibbs, Chicago seems to have found a great mentor for the young back line provided the former national team defender can stay healthy.

Chicago will do better in 2011 if...

Part of Chicago’s problem last season was that it never felt like Carlos de los Cobos had found a roster he could succeed with until about 60% of the season had been completed.

While that excuse will not fly this year, Chicago seems to have a more complete roster this season. There is a solid core with Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa, and Sean Johnson, and the team has added some key players with experience in quality leagues overseas.

Given these changes, and a year with De los Cobos under their belt, the team should fare much better this year. Oh, and MLS adding playoff spots certainly helps.

Chicago will do worse in 2011 if...

There is a lot of potential in the 2011 version of the Fire, but if the signings of Puerari and Chaves do not pan out, leading to a continued lack of production up front, watch out. De los Cobos would likely be gone sooner rather than later and Chicago would have to restructure things again this year.

Player to watch in 2011?

There are once again several intriguing new signings and young players forging ahead in their careers, but the player to watch for me was the best field player last year: Marco Pappa. Pappa is only 23, yet it seems as though the all star has already accomplished much in MLS. If he and Nyarko can combine well with some of the newer attacking players, things could be much better for the Fire this year.

Follow Isaac on Twitter for all things Chicago Fire this season @isaacGheath.

For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page and join Goal.com USA's Facebook fan page!