It has been nearly six months since first-year Chicago Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos met up with his new players for the start of preseason training on February 1 here in Bridgeview.
Adding a whole host of rookies as well as veterans Collins John, Krzysztof Krol, Julio Martinez and Deris Umanzor, the Mexican manager took his team through nearly two months of preseason preparation, traveling to Phoenix, Guadalajara, Jackson, MS, and Houston, while earning a 3-1-2 record in warm up matches.
Upon the side’s return to Chicago, final roster decisions were made and many were surprised by the release of veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch just days before the side traveled to take on the New York Red Bulls, opening the brand new Red Bull Arena with a 1-0 loss on March 27.
Now 14 games into the regular season, the Fire sit on 17 points with a 4-5-5 record, good enough for fourth in the Eastern Conference and five points out of the league’s last playoff spot with 16 matches to go. It’s not where I thought this team would be at this point and it certainly isn’t where most within the organization pictured themselves.
From almost the beginning of preseason, de los Cobos has dealt with injuries to a number of players, forcing him to start 10 different lineups in 14 regular season matches – an unenviable situation for any coach looking to provide some stability and develop with a number of players lacking experience.
“When I arrived to work with the Chicago Fire, my intention was to transmit my ideas and philosophies about the game to the players,” said de los Cobos from his Toyota Park office Thursday. “We’ve been working through a lot of injuries as the season has developed and that didn’t give us the opportunity for us as a team to improve collectively.”
Even with the injuries the team hasn’t been far off from sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference. There have been a number of close games where points have been dropped in the dying minutes, be it to earn wins or draws. By my count the Fire could easily be nine points above the 17 they currently have, putting them on 26 points and in a tie for second in the East with New York.
“A lot of times we’re playing well but we’re not getting the results we want and that has been frustrating. I think the points that we have – this is not the number that we looked to have at the beginning of the season and we could definitely be higher up the table -- we can’t dwell on those things. I think we’re living a process where we’re still building a new team. We have the majority of the players that were here from the last season but some of them didn’t play much last year. Now they are playing frequently and are maturing with the experience they’re gaining.”
A combination of fixture congestion and a plethora of those pesky aforementioned injuries could be blamed for the club’s exit from both the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga tournaments in the space of three weeks time. The Open Cup match against USL Second Division side Charleston Battery on June 29 came just 48 hours after the Fire defeated the New England Revolution 1-0 in Foxborough, MA, while all three SuperLiga matches were played in the span of six days.
In all four encounters, de los Cobos was unable to dress a full compliment of 18 players.
“I understand the disappointment the fans have with the results in the Open Cup and SuperLiga. I know especially what the U.S. Open Cup means to Chicago Fire fans and I understand they don’t feel good about the results. It’s necessary to look at our situation with injuries and consider that we are a young team with players that need time to mature and play better.”
One thing both competitions allowed the former Club America boss to do was give some experience to Fire rookie goalkeeper Sean Johnson. At 21, the Liburn, GA product is the youngest player in the team and played three of the four tournament matches, going 1-1-1 and earning two shutouts in the process.
“I was glad to give Sean the opportunity to show his qualities. I like him because he has a strong personality and very good communication with his backline. I think in both Andrew [Dykstra] and Sean we have two very good young goalkeepers that both have futures in the game.”
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Follow Chicago Fire Team Writer Jeff Crandall on Twitter @JefeCrandall.