The Tweet and Lowdown:
New scene, same old story? The Fire looks to finally reach the MLS Cup with de los Cobos at the helm and without Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Setting the Scene:
Perhaps no team underwent more prominent offseason changes than the Fire, starting at the top. Carlos de los Cobos takes charge of a hungry club that lost three big-time starters, including its Designated Player and star attraction for the past three seasons. Cuauhtemoc Blanco is gone after three years of boosting the club’s image and proving his doubters wrong, but can the Fire recover? De los Cobos has promised an attractive, attacking style that bucks the trend of a traditionally defensive-minded franchise, and has already mined his coaching past in Mexico and El Salvador to land Salvadoran midfielder Julio Martinez to shore up the midfield.
Ageless striker Brian McBride and hulking All-Star defender Wilman Conde are back for another round, and youngster Patrick Nyarko seems poised for more minutes and bigger things up top. But the team underwent a last-minute shakeup in the days before the opener when veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch was suddenly waved, leaving second-year youngster Andrew Dykstra in net for the opener and beyond. Even the addition of Dutch newcomer Collins John – McBride’s former Fulham teammate – doesn’t necessarily spell success for the Fire, which is looking to break the hex of three straight conference final shortcomings with its first MLS Cup since 1998.
Players In: Krzysztof Krol (Jagiellonia Bialystok), Corben Bone (Wake Forest), Kwame Watson-Siriboe (Connecticut) Collins John (KSV Roeselare), Julio Martinez (Club Leon FC)
Players Out: Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Veracruz), Chris Rolfe (Aalborg BK), Gonzalo Segares (Apollon Limassol), Brandon Prideaux (retirement), Jon Busch (waved)
Staff: De los Cobos takes over for Denis Hamlett as head coach from the EL Salvador national team, and British goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde replaces Daryl Shore. Assistant Mike Jeffries is also gone.
Star Attraction: Brian McBride
McBride, who turns 38 this summer, never quite considered retirement after last season, but he did wonder if his days in Chicago were done. The former Fulham striker contemplated relocating back to Europe if Chicago didn’t offer to pick up his contract, but the two sides made peace to keep the Chicagoland native at home for at least another season. He’s healthy after the shoulder surgery that sidelined him last fall, but his scoring trailed off last season after a hot start that made him a brief MVP candidate. If the Fire does win the MLS Cup, bet that McBride’s playing days are done.
Unsung Hero: Tim Ward
No player made a bigger surprise impact on the team last season than defender Tim Ward, a Colorado Rapids cast-off who landed in Chicago largely because of his connection as a teenager to former coach Denis Hamlett. Ward -- who palled around with a young Michael Bradley during the Fire’s workouts while Hamlett was an assistant to Bob Bradley -- started immediately and rebooted his career at defender, and logged every minute until he broke a bone in his foot during the team’s loss in the SuperLiga final. He’s healthy again and should provide a boost either on the back line or in the defensive midfield.
Ready for Primetime: Patrick Nyarko
Guatemalan midfielder Marco Pappa could also be ready to shine, but Partick Nyarko’s time is now. The third-year Ghanaian speedster has been clutch in late-game scenarios up top in two years at Toyota Park, and started a career-high 22 games last season. McBride praises his line mate’s tenacity and deceptive speed, and Nyarko’s been bulking up since he felt he was driven off the ball as a wide-eyed rookie out of Virginia Tech. If Nyarko can compete with the Dutch import John for time and fit into de los Cobos’ new style of play, he could see a serious uptick from his five career goals in two seasons.
Storylines to Watch:
This very well could be the last campaign of an impressive run for Conde, who earned his first All-Star nod last season after breaking into the league in 2007. The Colombian defender’s contract runs out at the end of the season, but don’t be surprised if Conde signs with a European or South American club in June. He’s been dissatisfied with the league’s offers thus far, and unless de los Cobos cultivates a relationship here that saves the day, one of the league’s best defenders will be gone. With Busch gone from net, the onus falls on Dysktra to somehow mature and do it in hyper-speed. But how well the team adjusts to de los Cobos’ new style and the absence of Blanco will likely define the season. This is the third coach in four seasons for veterans like Brown, John Thorrington and Logan Pause, and he’s a far cry from the MLS-savvy Hamlett who cherished defense mostly above all.
What He Said:
“The players in this league are very strong, very fast, and very tall. And the teams try to take advantage of these characteristics, and that’s the style is generally the way to play in this league. I’m coming from a different league, and a different style.”
-Head coach Carlos de los Cobos
If Everything Goes Right:
The pressure to return to the MLS Cup has built steadily here over the past three seasons, and de los Cobos has signed on with a franchise with lofty expectations. If he gels well with an established group of veterans and the youngsters he’s brought on board, the Fire should at least contend for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. An MLS Cup might be tougher without Blanco leading the way while leaning on fresh faces to run the midfield and in net, but the club has done more with less talent in years past. Expect a second-place finish in the East.