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Chicago Fire 2011 Season Preview: At Least That Means It's Basically Spring

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 18, 2011 3:20PM

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After one of the most exciting years in Chicago soccer history, your Chicago Fire is heading into this season with about as much momentum as a hungover barista. It's partly the residue of last season's huge disappointments - despite all the signings and post-World Cup excitement, the Fire failed to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history - and partly because of an off season overhaul that left fans with more questions than expectations.

Technical Director Frank Klopas saw the exodus of both veteran leader-types as William Conde (Atlas, Mexico), C.J. Brown (retirement), John Thorrington (expansion draft), Peter Lowry (expansion draft) and Brian McBride (retirement) as well as the high profile but underachieving Nery Castillo (loaned to Aris, Greece), Collins John (waived), and Freddie Ljungberg (Celtic, Scotland).

The replacements, for most part, are unknown entities picked up from mostly lesser known leagues or through the MLS Superdraft. This list includes Daniel Paladini (Carolina RailHawks), Josip Mikulic (NK Zagreb, Croatia), Jalil Anibaba (North Carolina), Davis Paul (University of California), Gastón Puerari (Montevideo Wanderers, Uruguay), Diego Cháves (Nacional, Uruguay), Orr Barouch (Tigres, Mexico), Marko Maric (Skoda Xanthi, Greece), and, improbably, open tryout star Paraskevas "Pari" Pantazopoulos. Unfortunately, not one among these new signings is known as a prolific goal scorer - something the Fire sorely lacked last year, and haven't been able to produce since Cuauhtémoc Blanco left.

So it's a team in flux. It's a team without a go-to guy. New leaders will emerge, they must. Fans are looking especially towards new captain Logan Pause and break out goalie star Sean Johnson (who got his first cap in January against Chile). But who's going to get that critical goal in a tight game? Can Marco Pappa, Calen Carr, and/or Patrick Nyarko make the jump from quick skillsters to menacing poachers?

In terms of tactics, preseason games and Fire staff indicate that second year coach Carlos de los Cobos - himself the recipient of a large amount of criticism last year - wants to play a 3-5-2. Even though that system basically died years ago, maybe - hardcore rationalization alert - it's exactly the injection of fresh thinking this team needs.

Either way, it's going to take a lot more than novel tactics to reverse the Fire's downfall. Once this city's sneakily most consistent team, just a penalty kick away from the MLS final in 2009, there's little to convince even the most optimistic Fire fan that this year will be an improvement on the frustrations of last.

The Chicagoist Springtime Sunshine Optimism Department's Things To Look Forward To Anyway:

- Despite being located past Midway in Bridgeview, Toyota Park is one of the MLS's best stadiums and Fire games remain an underrated good time. Season tickets are available for just $200, Section 8 is a top, top, class supporter's club, and don't forget the BEER BUSES.

- You don't have to worry about a lockout.

- MLS signed a deal with Opta, a firm that's gained considerabl esteem over the past year or so for developing new statistical models for soccer. If their venerable Twitter accounts are anything to go by, fans will be treated to a steady diet of pioneering soccer statistics this season.

The Fire open their season tomorrow night at 7:30 (CSN) in Brimstone Cup action at F.C. Dallas.