The Houston Dynamo thought that Dominic Oduro was so much of a liability after missing a sitter in the season opener that they immediately cast him off to the Chicago Fire, trading him for Calen Carr.
Houston's misstep was Chicago's offensive answer, particularly in the final two thirds of the season, as Oduro received ESPNChicago's vote for the team's most valuable player in 2011.
Oduro netted 12 goals, becoming the first Fire player since Damani Ralph in 2004 to reach double-digit tallies in a season. That number more than doubled Oduro's previous-best five goals in 2008 with FC Dallas and last year with the Dynamo. And that goal production tied him for fifth among the league leaders.
But Oduro was not exactly a runaway MVP choice for this team. Throughout a decent portion of this season his finishing ability was questioned, starting the minute he was brought in to play for the Fire. MVP consideration also went to Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, despite his limited playing time. Grazzini was hands down the best production-per-minute player on the team.
Grazzini scored five goals and added four assists in only 780 minutes. Triple that production for a full season of play and that is not just team MVP-worthy -- that is league MVP consideration. But the bottom line is Grazzini only saw the pitch for 11 games, and the Fire desperately needed more minutes out of him to reach the postseason. Unfortunately for Chicago, Grazzini's hamstring issues limited his time, both in regular-season play and in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The speedy Oduro missed his share of high-percentage scoring opportunities, but he was responsible for more than a quarter of the Fire's goals this season. His offense picked up the slack for a team that also was expecting more from midfielder Marco Pappa, who struggled mightily (other than his hat trick against Real Salt Lake) following his CONCACAF Gold Cup stint.
ESPNChicago's choice for team defender of the year was center back Cory Gibbs. He was the most consistent player from start to finish. And a bulk of Gibbs' value has to be toward mentoring a young defensive group that included Jalil Anibaba (23), Yamith Cuesta (22) and Josip Mikulic (25).
Following C.J. Brown's retirement and Wilman Conde's departure after the 2010 season, there were plenty of defensive question marks heading into this year. Gibbs filled a needed role to lead the back line, and that appears to be the area on the pitch with the least concern heading into this offseason.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson also was considered for the defensive honor. Johnson struggled at the start of the season and briefly lost his starting job to Jon Conway. But the second-year goalkeeper improved immensely down the stretch, posting seven shutouts on the campaign.