2012 Chicago Fire Preview: 2011 surge gives Fire hope

Fire, Klopas ready to pick up where they left off in 2011

MLSsoccer.com is previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2011 and ending with the league's newest addition, the Montreal Impact. This is part one of two previewing Chicago's 2012 season. You can find Part 2 here.

Setting the Scene

Last season’s start was dismal. The Fire won just two games and tied 15 in their first 24. But the arrival of central midfielders Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini changed everything. Patrick Nyarko was pushed up top alongside fellow Ghanaian Dominic Oduro, and the two flourished in front of the newly arrived playmakers. Oduro finished the year with 12 goals. The Fire finished the season 7-2-1, and were just three points shy of a playoff berth.

This year, the Fire bring back their entire starting lineup and added another layer of depth behind them. The addition of Colombian Rafael Robayo, a box-to-box midfielder, adds to an already deep midfield. It may be difficult for coach Frank Klopas to keep his key offseason signing out of the starting lineup for long.

Still, Oduro is the only proven goal-scoring forward, and it’s still not clear whether last season was an anomaly. But if the Fire are truly the same team that finished 2011, they’ll get back to their traditional winning ways after two years without a playoff berth.

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In and Out

IN:Jay Nolly (12/5: trade from Vancouver); F Kheli Dube (12/12: Re-Entry Stage 2/New England); M Rafael Robayo (1/9: free/Millonarios); F Federico Puppo (1/11: free/Danubio); D Austin Berry (1/12: SuperDraft); F Lucky Mkosana (1/12: SuperDraft); D Hunter Jumper (1/12: SuperDraft); M Tony Walls (1/17: supplemental draft)

OUT: F Christian Nazarit (12/7: option declined); F Gabriel Ferrari (12/7: option declined); G Alec Dufty (12/12: option declined); M Baggio Husidic (12/12: Re-Entry Stage 2/Colorado); G Jon Conway (12/12: Re-Entry Stage 2/LA Galaxy); F Diego Chaves, (1/15: free/Palestino)

READ: 2012 Chicago Fire Depth Chart

WATCH: Oduro out to prove 2011 was no fluke

Star Attraction: Dominic Oduro

Oduro burst onto the scene with 12 goals in 2012. The Ghanaian forward has always been one of the fastest players in the league, but last year he added a finishing touch after an early season trade to the Fire. Paired with Nyarko up top, Oduro was lethal at the end of last season and was recently rewarded with a national team call up.

After a career year in 2011, there is reason to believe this year may be an even better one for Oduro. Seven of his goals came in his final 13 starts, after Grazzini and Pardo arrived.

READ: Breakout 2011 leads to Ghana call-up for Chicago's Oduro

Unsung Hero: Logan Pause

Pause is one of the last remaining links to the Fire’s winning tradition. The unheralded leader was forced to vacate his natural holding midfield position when Pardo arrived last season, but he has the respect of his teammates.

In his 10th year with the Fire, it’s unlikely the captain will find himself on the bench, even in a crowded midfield. He won’t be a traditional winger. Instead, he’ll track back more as a defensive stopper. If Klopas wants to insert Robayo into Pause’s spot, the 30-year-old veteran can slide back to right back.

Ready for Primetime: Orr Barouch

After spending six weeks during the offseason playing with the Israeli U-21 national team and training with Israeli club Maccabi Haifa, the 20-year-old forward comes into 2012 with some valuable experience. He came off the bench 26 times in 2011 and started twice.

Barouch should start off the year in a similar role to 2011, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he starts a few more games this year after scoring two goals and adding two assists in 624 minutes in 2011.

READ: With Barouch back, Fire have another option up top

Storylines to Watch

1. Who will start in the midfield? With five midfielders who found themselves in Klopas' lineup at the end of 2011 and Robayo added to the mix, it isn’t clear who will start. Right now, Robayo looks like the odd man out. Nyarko will probably get the nod at forward. Grazzini and Pardo were two of the biggest catalysts during the Fire’s season-ending resurgence in 2011. Pause is the team captain and a respected leader, so it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which he sits. Of course, Pappa is one of the most talented players on the team. Pause may move to right back at some point, opening up a spot for Robayo.

2. How will backup goalkeeper Jay Nolly perform when Sean Johnson is away? Johnson will probably miss some time this season with the Olympic team, so Nolly, who started 14 games last year for Vancouver, will get an opportunity to start some games between the posts. He’ll likely be the biggest question mark in the starting lineup when Johnson is away.

READ: Countdown to First Kick: Fire hottest in month of March

What He Said

“There’s a sense of excitement. I think great teams, in whatever sport, take time to build. The longer you can keep a group together while adding some pieces along the way, the more you get to know each other’s tendencies and learn from each other.”

 Fire midfielder Logan Pause

SEE: 2012 Season Preview Archive

If Everything Goes Right

Chicago was one of the top teams in the league over the last 10 games of 2011. There is little reason to believe they’ll start the year any different.

If everything goes to plan, the Fire will be back in the top tier of the Eastern Conference and they’ll earn a postseason berth. Without a true marquee player, it’s hard to envision the Chicago winning MLS Cup, but an Eastern Conference championship berth is certainly within reach.

Anthony Zilis covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com.

WATCH: Klopas out to build on strong second half