Do you remember, kids, just how goddamn awful the Chicago Fire seemed in May? It wasn’t so much that they handed Toronto FC their first win in franchise history, but the utterly supine crouch from which they did it. That was only one of several lopsided losses (ouch!, ouch!, ouch!) – e.g. any game in which a team gives up three goals and loses by at least two – from the first half of the season: May featured three such losses and the Fire added one in June, as well as a 4-0 collapse to the Houston Dynamo in July.
As MLSnet.com’s review of the Fire’s 2007 points out, that big ol’ loss to Houston also happened to be Juan Carlos Osorio’s debut as a coach in Major League Soccer (MLS); he took over from former coach Dave Sarachan in early July. Given what the rest of their season looked like perhaps it’s fairer, then, to credit that loss to the Sarachan hangover – a period characterized by what looked like racking self-doubt among Chicago’s players. But those lopsided games left after that loss to Houston, never to return for the rest of the year. There’s no question that Chicago turned around their season under Osorio, but the extent to which they did so, as well as how they did so, bears noting.
Looking from the outside in, I assume 2007 was hell on Chicago fans. Sure, they started well, but when they went down – holy shit – did they go down. It played out on the field like some kind of unspoken campaign in support of relegation in the American game. Their late-ish summer rally (August, September) only looked impressive against what came before; that the teams they beat – Toronto, the Columbus Crew, and the Kansas City Wizards – impressed fewer than most always left open the question of whether Chicago was for real. No less significantly, they followed this with a string of ties – four straight, in fact – that, at the time, might have been mistaken for little more than slow steps toward respectability.
However one read those results, two chief impressions surrounded the Fire by season’s end: 1) they were hard as hell to beat – Osorio’s rigorously organized, arguably pleasure-throttling, game plans saw to that; 2) pursuant to #1, no one wanted to face the Fire in the playoffs. The sub-text to #1 – e.g. the bit about rigorous organization and, by implication, tactical cunning – makes what actually happened in the post-season all the more baffling: Osorio coached an utter dud in the Eastern Conference Final against the New England Revolution, both starting and keeping faith with Paolo Wanchope, a striker transparently past his use-by date; making matters worse, the subs he did make came far too late.
So…where does that leave this synopsis of Chicago’s 2007? A couple things stand out. First, all credit to the team and Osorio for pulling a Lazarus: a number of teams tried the same trick this year – Columbus and the Los Angeles Galaxy to name two – and they failed. Second, even with the inimitable addition of Cuauthemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe’s impressive come-back from injury, Chicago’s offense needs to improve – what else does one get from the underwhelming 31 goals for? In the grand scheme, the Fire ended 2007 on a solid foundation, but there’s no question they need a thing or two to be anything better than a tough team to beat.
– How’s a four-game losing streak in May grab ya? It made a joke of Chicago’s strong start. To put numbers to this, after starting 3-0-1, Chicago compiled a 2-8-3 going into the All-Star break, a mark that established their reputation for 2007 and generally made later wins seem random and irrelevant. This impression held till the next streak came along…
– How does eight league games without a loss grab ya? The numbers are less striking here – 3-0-5 – but it was enough.
What Went Right
– Signing Blanco proved smart on so many levels: road support, talent, temperament, cash, excitement, etc. I crapped on this signing, more because I thought he’d lose it with the refs and physical play than because of his age, but I’m happy to have been proved wrong on this one.
– Osorio’s arrival: Not just from an on-the-pitch perspective – which was good – but because of who was able to bring in; I’m thinking Wilman Conde here as opposed to Wanchope.
– Recovering from that god-awful start should help instill a fighting spirit in all involved for the rest of their careers; it showed what is possible.
– The team seems excited about what’s happening generally and that’s a powerful intangible.
– Even with the recovery noted, the first half of 2007 revealed the fragility of MLS franchises. The mood got so blue and the gates so crappy that something as fundamental and permanent as the stadium in Bridgeview seemed open to question. As much as I doubt disaster ever loomed, it sure looked that way for a while.
– Paolo Wanchope for the way he revived fears about aging players looking for a final paycheck.
– I already mentioned this, but 31 goals in 30 games? That ties them for third-worst with Real Salt Lake – an unacceptable standard for a team of Chicago’s stature.
Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back)
Cuauthemoc Blanco: Duh.
Wilman Conde: Better than he is versatile.
Justin Mapp: Awful, awful year, but he’s good enough that you wait till he proves fragile.
Dasan Robinson: He looks like the real deal.
Chris Rolfe: He’s scoring – and that’s important – but this year he showed what he can do with better players around him. And it was good.
Gonzalo Segares: Crazy upside, given where he plays on the field.
Bakary Soumare: A real battler in a kind of scary way; just needs some polish.
Anyone Who Ought to Leave
Paolo Wanchope: And he kindly did so. But he was bad enough to warrant comment.
Floyd Franks: I haven’t seen a lot of him, but what I saw was that bad.
Calen Carr: He gets another year…at most.
What They’re Needin’
– Forwards. Forwards, forwards, forwards. I know a few people would have slipped Chad Barrett in the above, but I see enough in him to keep him around…at least for another couple years. But Chicago needs quality forwards. Chris Rolfe isn’t enough.
– General reinforcements: with Chris Armas retired and C. J. Brown, Diego Gutierrez, etc. getting on in years, Chicago will have some holes to fill…perhaps sooner than they expect. Players like Soumare and Robinson are great starts, but they need more.
– A back-up ‘keeper to keep Matt Pickens honest. He had some shaky moments this season, even if they were only sprinkled around some great ones.