Camp Convenes

Klopas talks off-season, new trialists as 2011 camp opens

As the Chicago Fire first team reconvened to kickoff the
2011 season late last week, there was a sense of new beginning among the
players and technical staff.

The 2010 season was not a good one as the side missed out
the postseason for just the second time in club history.

The work to right the ship began almost immediately
following the team’s 4-1 season-ending victory at Chivas USA on October 23.
First team regulars and rookie draftees that arrived last Friday were joined by
a host of foreign and domestic trialists Monday, putting the number of players
currently in training camp above 40.

The high number speaks to the amount of players identified
during a season of hard work by the club’s technical staff, one that saw six
members take in games, training sessions and meet with players in Serbia,
Croatia, Germany, Slovenia, England, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador,
Uruguay and Ghana since late October.

The club has already signed one player from their offseason
travels, inking Croatian defender Josip Mikulic earlier this month. More
foreign players that are currently not in camp continue to make their way
through the process of gaining an international transfer certificate.

The amount of travel done by technical staff this past
offseason is the most the club has done in its 14-year history and something
that Frank Klopas and his staff viewed as a necessity as only 15 of the 40-plus
currently in camp are returning from the 2010 team. Add in the fact that MLS
rosters have expanded from 24 to 28 or 30 players and it makes Klopas’ job that much
more challenging.

 “It’s not
easy,” admitted the club’s Technical Director Monday.  “We’ve been doing the hard work and
research, watched hundreds of tapes and seen guys up close and talked to them
all with the intention of getting the right players to make us successful. We’ve
identified a number of trialists through our trips but there are good players
that you just need to see in a different environment. You want to see how they
do with the speed of play, how they mesh with the team. You have a good idea
going in, but you always want to see them at a higher level.”

Some players to keep tabs on during this training camp are
two young Colombians: Fabian Burbano and Yoximar Granados. Burbano, 19, is a Colombian
U20 international in from Envigado FC and is a striker that can play out wide.
Still 18, Granados is a speedy right back that comes in from the Sarmiento
Soccer School in Lora, Colombia.

Sure to challenge Granados at the right back spot in camp is
Coral Springs, FL native Nate Weiss, 23, who after leaving Stetson University
has played with clubs in Spain, Ireland, Sweden and most recently Latvian side
FK Jelgava.

Undrafted Scottish striker Ashley McInnes has joined from
Tulsa University while the club’s Open Tryout winner Pari Pantazopoulos is also
among the current roster.

A full list of preseason trialists is to be released by the
Chicago Fire on Tuesday.

Decisions

Though the current roster is large, it won’t stay that way
as the team transitions to their second preseason home in Ave Maria, FL
beginning February 14.

“We’re planning on being somewhere around 30-32 players by
then,” said Klopas. “I think in a week we’ll have a pretty good idea, but the
first phase here, we’re still getting everyone’s fitness level up. We’ll start
playing more soon though because with the trialists here we need to make some
decisions.”

One decision that Klopas and his team have already made was
the release of goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra earlier Monday. Because 2011 MLS roster
rules dictate that teams need to carry three goalkeepers, one of which needs to
be filled with a developmental spot, Dykstra, who will turn 25 this year is too
old to be kept in a developmental role.

The situation is different from most teams around the league.
The Fire currently have 21-year-old Sean Johnson as the incumbent starter.  Earning that role halfway through last
season, Johnson cemented it when he made his debut for the U.S. Men’s National
Team in a friendly vs. Chile earlier this month.

“We’re in a situation where Sean [Johnson] is our starter
going into 2011 and we wanted to add someone with the experience needed to push
him and also fill in for him in case of injury or national team call ups. We
feel we got that player during the draft in Jon Conway.”

Coaching and Methods

Players aren’t the only new guys coming in as the club has
welcomed two coaches into the fold this offseason.

Former Uruguayan international goalkeeper Leo Percovich
joins Carlos de los Cobos’ staff as first assistant coach while Frenchman Tony
Jouaux has been named the club’s new Strength and Conditioning coach having
served in the same role with the University of Louisville’s men’s soccer team
that ran to the finals of the 2010 NCAA College Cup.

Percovich, who won the prestigious Copa Libertadores while
with Nacional in his native Uruguay, brings five years of MLS experience to the
fold, working previously as in assistant and goalkeeping coaching roles with
the Colorado Rapids, Chivas USA and Toronto FC. He’s also bilingual.

Jouaux, a highly technical physical trainer from France,
brings experience and new ideas to the fold for a team that had a number of
injury issues during 2010.

A highlight of the team’s preseason setup during their
two-a-day workouts here in Chicago is the transformation of the Toyota Park Stadium
Club into a larger player’s lounge, where guys will eat and spend their time
between training sessions together. The club is setup with gaming tables,
foosball, TV screens and lots of couches, where players can recover from
training while getting to know their new teammates.

It’s a setup that, while foreign to a lot of clubs in the
United States, is common place among most big clubs around the world.

“We want these guys to get to know each other, to do things
together in order to develop that chemistry on and off the field. When we scout
players we look for guys with talent and character, but when they come in here,
we obviously want them to develop chemistry with the rest of the team on and
off the field. We think this is an effective way of doing it.”

Jeff Crandall is the Team
Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter
@JefeCrandall.