I won’t lie and tell you this time of year is my favorite… I much prefer Thanksgiving to the month of insanity that begins the day after, all in the lead up to “The Holiday Season”. Ask anyone that knows me and they’ll tell you I’m not materialistic – rather I see much greater reward in gifts of the symbolic, rewarding and accomplishment nature.
This is all an intro into nine things I’m hoping for heading into the 2012 Fire season.
A return to the MLS Cup playoffs – Ask any Fire supporter and they’ll tell you the past two years haven’t been easy. Prior to 2010, making the postseason was an afterthought with the team only missing out once before (2004).
Unlike many other sports leagues, just getting into the MLS Cup playoffs gives a team a very real chance of winning the league title as we saw with LA in 2005, and more recently with Real Salt Lake and Colorado in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Despite a very poor start to 2011, the team very nearly recovered to make the postseason, missing out by only three points. Put together a campaign that resembles the last half of 2011 and this side won’t only be a playoff team, but one to contend with in the postseason.
A trip to Montreal in 2012 (but not for their stadium opening) – This is more of a personal wish for me. I don’t always get to travel with the team but when I do, I thoroughly enjoy the experience. There will likely be no better away atmosphere than the one at Stade Saputo when l’Impact de Montreal become the league’s 19th club. Knowing the passion of the supporters in Montreal, I’d love to take a trip to French Canada for a Fire game but my wish to the league: after making the Fire open three stadiums in two seasons, how about you send FC Dallas instead?
(This goes for the Houston Dynamo’s stadium opening later in the year as well…)
Another call up for Sean Johnson to the U.S. Men’s National Team – Entering his third year in Chicago, Sean Johnson has firmly planted himself as the starting keeper for the Fire and has been a part of the early U.S. U23 national team camps in the latter part of this year. Coming off a great end to the 2011 season, Johnson’s just finished a week-long training stint at Everton FC but hasn’t been recalled to the full men’s national team since making his first appearance in a 1-1 friendly draw vs. Chile last January.
Johnson is one of this country’s brightest goalkeeping prospects and is someone that people will look to carry on the legacy left by the likes of Keller, Friedel, Meola and Howard at the position. Here’s hoping Sean features for both the U.S. Olympic Team and returns to the full side in 2012.
A Fire Jersey Sponsor – I loved the return to seeing “FIRE” across the front of the jersey in 2011 but the money gained from a shirt sponsor can certainly help a club. With a new design due to come out in the New Year, it’d be nice to associate a new sponsor brand across it.
A debut appearance for Victor Pineda – Having signed as the club’s first Home Grown player in August 2010, there is a lot of interest and even more hope riding behind the progress of Pineda.
He was far too green and the club was still trying to qualify for the playoffs for the few short months he was part of the first team his initial season. Having said that, the Bolingbrook, IL product has made strides over the 2011 campaign, making the match day 18 a few times during the end of the season.
Pineda made his unofficial first team debut when he came on at halftime for captain Logan Pause in September’s 1-0 friendly loss to Chivas de Guadalajara and got a well-earned yellow card in the process. The central midfielder just had a starring performance at the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Showcase in November and is said to be playing with high confidence following his 45 minutes against the Goats.
A fifth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title – Maybe this is a lot to ask, but the highlight of the 2011 season was the club’s return to success in the domestic tournament it owned through its first decade of existence. While some of the U.S. Open Cup has to do with luck, the ride through the 2011 competition and the return to the final, even though it was a loss, will be one of my lasting memories with this team.
My hope: another run to the 2012 championship match with Logan Pause lifting the trophy in front of the Fire faithful at Toyota Park.
Double-Digit Goals and Assists for the Ghanaian duo – Key to the team’s midseason turnaround was pairing fellow countrymen Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko up top together. Oduro became the first Fire player in seven seasons to score double-digit goals, tallying an 85th minute game winner off a Nyarko pass in a 3-2 victory over Chivas USA on September 17.
While Oduro finished with 12 goals, Nyarko nearly matched his breakout numbers from 2010, racking up one goal and nine assists in 2011. While it may be a high task, if the now veteran Fire striker tallied 15 assists in 2012, he’ll match Peter Nowak’s record of assists across three consecutive seasons (34 from 1998-2000).
A “Release the Gargan” tifo from Section 8 Chicago – I was sad earlier this summer when Dasan Robinson, one of my favorite Fire players of all-time was traded to Toronto FC. I miss seeing Dae around Toyota Park, but what the team got in exchange was another great player and person in Dan Gargan.
@RealDanGargan (on Twitter) is as tough a defender as they come and was quoted shortly after his arrival saying, “[Our defense] needs to be nasty, miserable to play against.” The Philadelphia, PA product followed up his words by locking down right side and even tallied a goal against TFC a month after his unceremonious exit from BMO Field.
Gargan is the type of player that personifies the city of Chicago and the Fire: humble, gritty and hard working. Colorado Rapids supporters may have coined the phrase “Release the Gargan” but I’d like to see Section 8 Chicago make a tifo effort in his honor.
A Chicago Fire garden gnome – At the beginning of this I said I wasn’t materialistic and I promise I’m not. Having been with the Fire for two years, I’ve collected a lot of gear so a Fire jersey, jacket, hat, scarf, flag, hoodie aren’t really high gift priorities for me but this garden gnome would certainly be a centerpiece of my Pilsen bachelor pad.
The fact that I don’t have a garden means little. Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, take note. This guy is available via ShopChicago-Fire.com and can also be purchased at the Fan Shop inside Toyota Park!
I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday season!
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.