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.
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.