SBI MLS Season Preview: Chicago Fire

Photo by Tracy Allen/ISIPhotos.com

By TYLER DAY

A promising pre-season and a revamped midfield have the Chicago Fire poised to erase the bitter taste of last year’s late-season collapse.

Just five months ago in mid-September 2012, fresh off seven wins in eight matches, the Fire stood second in the Eastern Conference ready for a deep playoff run.  Having missed the playoffs the two previous seasons, the club was surging thanks to a stalwart defense and opportunistic goal scoring.

But then the unraveling began with a 2-0 defeat at Sporting Kansas City and the Fire managed only one win in its final five regular season contests.  That dropped them to fourth in the East and into a one-game playoff with Houston.  The Fire fell behind early at home and lost 2-1 to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Dynamo.

In the ensuing months, the Fire were active acquiring new players, particular in the midfield.  The team landed Joel Lindpere from the New York Red Bulls, and shortly after Jeff Larentowicz in a trade with the Colorado Rapids, shoring up the club’s interior after the retirement of Mexican international Pavel Pardo and the departure of Alvaro Fernandez on loan to Al Rayyan.

In early February, the Fire then added the often-beleaguered Dilly Duka from Columbus to round out the overhauled midfield.  The deal sent the speedy Dominic Oduro to Columbus, perhaps leaving a void of pace and creativity for the squad in 2013.

The keys to the Fire’s chances in 2013 will be how the team’s rebuild midfield can come together, and who Frank Klopas finds to be the team’s go-to goal scorer.

Here is a closer look at the Chicago Fire heading into the 2013 MLS season:

CHICAGO FIRE SEASON PREVIEW

2012 FINISH: 17-11-6, 57 points (fourth in Eastern Conference)

KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Joel Lindpere, M Jeff Larentowicz, M Dilly Duka, M Brendan King, F Maicon Santos.

KEY LOSSES: M Pavel Pardo, F Guillermo Franco, M Alvaro Fernandez, F Federico Puppo, F Dominic Oduro, GK Jay Nolly.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: M Dilly Duka – The Fire gave up a considerable amount of pace and attacking options when they flipped Dominic Oduro for Duka (and the rights to Robbie Rodgers).  The former Columbus Crew player will be relied upon early to provide a spark along the wing.  Duka has shown flashes in the past of the potential that earned him the eighth overall selection in 2010, but injuries and conflict between him and Columbus led to a difficult 2012 season.  He and the Fire will be hoping that a change of scenery will help jump-start his career.

THE PRESSURE IS ON: Chris Rolfe – With a lack of depth of front, the Fire may need to rely on 2012’s team MVP even more.  Last year he finished with team high 8 goals and 3 assists, and if the Fire are to become legitimate contenders, he will need to stay healthy to put pressure on opposing backlines.

OUTLOOK

The strength of the Fire should again be its defense, building off last year’s 41 goals allowed, the second-lowest total in the East.

With the midfield acquisitions, Fire captain Logan Pause will challenge Jalil Anibaba for starter’s minutes at right back.  The rest of the defense, which center back tandem of Arne Friedrich and 2012’s MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, and veteran Gonzalo Segares at left back, offers the Fire stability and consistency heading into the season.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson enters the 2013 season riding a wave of confidence after earning his first U.S. Men’s National Team start. He enjoyed a strong run of form in the second-half of the 2012 season and should only continue to mature and improve.

The most encouraging aspect of the team’s off-season has been the reconstruction of the midfield. The team addressed its need for bite in the midfield with the arrivals of Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere.

“We needed to get a little tougher in the middle and with Jeff and Joel we bring that grittiness and experience, and quality,” Frank Klopas said. “Jeff has won a championship before and Joel shows up every game ready to give it everything he has.”

Dilly Duka’s arrival from Columbus could wind up being one of the most important acquisitions of the off-season. Though he has yet to really have a breakout season, Duka has long been considered one of the most skilled young midfielders in the league. The Fire will be banking on being able to showcase the former U.S. Under-23 midfielder and helping him have a breakout season.

The real concern as the season progresses will be whether the forward tandem of Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald will be able to withstand the grind of the campaign.  The duo showed at times last year they can create chances, and an entire season together will only add more comfort between the two, but the club’s real lack of depth up front may pose a problem as the season goes on.

The Fire did add Maicon Santos in the Re-Entry Draft, and him finding his form would help.  The team could also benefit from an early emergence of the promising Cameroonian forward Yazid Atouba, who the team drafted with its only pick in this year’s draft.  He played well throughout the preseason and should earn a contract with the club.  Although Klopas says he is satisfied with his team entering the season, they could perhaps look to add a player up front in the summer window.

If the preseason is any indication, the club could be in for big things in the upcoming campaign.  They finished 5-1-3 overall, including winning the Carolina Challenge Cup.

They will try to maintain that momentum with a difficult schedule out of the gate.  In addition to an opening visit to Los Angeles to play the MLS Champion Galaxy, the team has early away matches vs. Sporting Kansas City and Houston.

“I think we pushed some guys the way we wanted to and it’s a start,” Klopas said. “Hopefully at the end of the season we can lift another trophy.”

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12 Responses to SBI MLS Season Preview: Chicago Fire

  1. Felix says:

    I like the overhaul of the team. I worry for depth, especially in the wings and at forward. As athletic as Anibaba is, I don’t like him as a RB, I’d prefer him apprenticing to Arne Friedrich and the Fire bringing in some natural RBs. Also, Pause has a plenty of guile and experience, but I always felt his contributions going forward when he did play as a fullback were minimal. I’d like to see him paired with Larentowicz (great Chicago name!), I think those two paired in the center of the park could really boss a midfield and then distribute to either Nyarko, Rolfe or Lindpere.
    But if this team can avoid the injury bug and Rolfe and Macdonald continue to build a rapport up front, I think this club can be dangerous this year.

    • KP1935 says:

      I agree about Anibaba, but I’d rather have Larentowicz and Lindpere in the middle of the field. Lindpere didn’t like playing wide in NY. Unfortunately if Pause can’t handle the right side of defense it may be time for to sit.

      • Felix says:

        Lindpere didn’t like the left side? I didnt know that. He definitely has the workrate to play as a box-to-box midfielder. But we would still be missing something on the wing. I felt we looked best when we had two creative wingers running on the sidelines and cutting in, like Nyarko and Pappa.

        • Ryan says:

          Duka has looked very good this summer, I think he will be very good opposite Nyarko. Don’t forget about Atouba either. He won’t get a lot of minutes, but he has been VERY dangerous this pre-season. And, Victor Pineda should be healthy and ready to help in the next 4-6 weeks. We will be fine on the wings.

          Taking Pause out of midfield allows us to go with a 1 DM look. I would rather have Anibaba at RB myself, but the offense can be more dynamic with 1 DM rather than 2. And Larentowicz is a big upgrade over Pause. Plus Lindpere can track back in the center of midfield when needed to help on defense as well.

  2. Jeff says:

    Get Beasley this summer to play on the left and they are good to go.

  3. Adam says:

    Puppo is considered a key loss when he played in 11 games and started only 1 and managed to score 0 goals, really?

    • Drew says:

      Well, if you are going to criticize this, you might as well do it right. How about Jay Nolly with not one first team appearance or Guilllermo Franco with 3 appearances & no goals. Anyway, I think it’s just semantics, “key” probably should just be dropped.

  4. Jeffrey Krause says:

    I’d definitely rate the acquisition of Larentowicz or Lindpere over Duka. Duka’s shown well in preseason, but he’s largely unproven at this point, whereas Jeff and Joel are both going to be key pieces of the midfield for the bulk of the near future in Chicago.