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Chicago Fire: What Happened in 2009?

By Isaac Heath

After seeing another promising season unravel before their eyes, the Chicago Fire are in danger of becoming the MLS version of the consistent underachiever. Think Atlanta Braves (15 straight division titles and only one World Series to show for it), or the Buffalo Bills of the early 90’s (4 straight Super Bowl appearances with no rings).

Yes, it is sad to say but the facts are undeniable: 2009 added another chapter in story of the Chicago Fire’s inability to complete a season and become champions. Undoubtedly, Chicago is one of the best franchises in MLS and consistently competes for hardware, but there are no moral victories in pro sports. Bottom line is that at some point you have to win, and the Fire once again was not able to do it in 2009.

The Fire started the first half of the season fairly strong, but limped to the finish, winning only four of the 12 games after the all star break. After clinching a playoff berth in the last match of the season there was a high level of excitement and apparent momentum, but all came crashing down with a bitter loss to eventual champs Real Salt Lake in a shootout.

Head Coach Denis Hamlett, who knew he would be out unless they took the cup, was fired shortly after. The coaching dilemma, combined with the departure of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe leave giant question marks for the Fire as they look ahead to 2010.

What Went Wrong?

One of the larger factors for Chicago’s shaky finish to the 2009 season was the loss of several key players to injuries. John Thorrington, Wilman Conde, and Gonzalo Segares were all out for the majority of the second half of the season.

On top of the injuries, Hamlett also had to deal with the midseason departure of defender Bakary Soumare and the controversy that surrounded it. Soumare and Hamlett had a disagreement that escalated to fighting during halftime of a game with the Houston Dynamo. Less than a month later the Mali international was headed to France to play with Boulogne.

In spite of all the personnel losses, the Fire defense remained relatively strong as Brandon Prideaux, Dasan Robinson, Mike Banner, and Daniel Woolard all pitched in to fill the void.

Ironically, the offense that boasted one of the best attacking trios in MLS in McBride, Blanco, and Rolfe, struggled to produce many goals for the Fire. Chicago played close with everyone, but lacked precise finishing and was unable to put teams away, including Real Salt Lake.

McBride led the team with a measly seven goals, and to make matters worse, late in the season was when the offense really dried up. In its last six games including the playoffs, the Fire only scored four goals and claimed two victories.

What Went Right?

Even though the Fire crashed out of the playoffs one game short of the final yet again, there is still something to be said for making it to a third consecutive conference final. Given all the injuries they had to deal with, one could argue that Hamlett did an amazing job just to guide the team through the first round of the playoffs.

Additionally, the Fire saw a few of its younger players step up throughout the year, giving Fire fans optimism for the future. While Blanco and McBride certainly were the main protagonists for the Fire, the emergence of young players like Patrick Nyarko, Baggio Husidic, and Marco Pappa helped to keep the team afloat late in the season and into the playoffs.

Finally, as an organization, the Chicago Fire has to be ecstatic about the continued growing support of the team.  Beautiful Toyota Park was filled with loud, passionate fans for both of the Fire’s playoff games, showcasing the emergence of Chicago as a top franchise in the league. 

What Should The Team Do Differently?

Plain and simple, the 2010 version of the Chicago Fire has to score more goals. Picking up the option on McBride was huge, because the team would have struggled mightily to replace Blanco, Rolfe and McBride. However, with the departure of Rolfe and Blanco the Fire will be missing its second and third leading goal scorers.
One thing the Fire has to have up front next season is speed.

All too often in 2009 McBride and Blanco would both end up being the forward tandem, and neither of those players are speedsters to say the least. Blanco is a midfielder who was too old to play defense for 90 minutes, and McBride has always been more of a post up forward.

In fact, some of the best attacking the Fire had in the playoffs came when Nyarko was in the game because his pace made things happen.

Whether or not Nyarko is ready to be a feature forward with the Fire is yet to be determined, but regardless, the Fire needs a younger, more creative player up top to help create opportunities for himself and McBride.

What Changes Will Be Made?

With the firing of Head Coach Denis Hamlett, there will inevitably be a new coach at the helm this coming season. While Technical Director Frank Klopas has been rather coy about the search, he has admitted that the process is going well thus far.

Outside of the obvious coaching change, the Fire will undoubtedly look to bring in a quality player or two in order to fill the void that will be left behind by Blanco and Rolfe. Obtaining the rights to Marco Pappa was big, but the Fire still need a striker or attacking midfielder to help with the offense.

Don’t be surprised if they go after another big name, as the Blanco experience has been extremely successful for the Fire. Of course, there is a rumor that Blanco may be back after his season with Veracruz ends, and if that is the case then the Fire may choose to search for a less expensive option.

What Will Happen Next Year?

With a new coach coming in and most likely a few new signings, at this point it is extremely difficult to predict how the Fire will fare next season. Whoever they decide to bring in will be joining one of the leagues’ most successful teams, but with that there will be high expectations because of the sour taste the finishes of the last three seasons have left.

Despite the uncertainty, expect to see the Fire in the playoffs once again. They have proven themselves to be a solid bet over the years and management always seems to field a competitive team  But depending on what happens in the offseason, Chicago will not be a favorite to contend like it has been the last couple of years.

Isaac Heath covers the Chicago Fire for Goal.com.

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