BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The massive offseason overhaul from a year ago is not expected, but there still are important questions following the Chicago Fire's 2011 season.
The head coaching situation will take front and center as Frank Klopas stepped in an interim role to replace Carlos de los Cobos. There is some curiosity as to which players will return next year, particularly midseason midfield signings Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini. And like any team, there could be some key losses from the November expansion draft.
Fire defender Cory Gibbs thinks the team is in good shape after the organization missed out on the postseason for a second straight year with a 9-9-16 record.
"Minimal tweaking. Minimal tweaking," Gibbs said. "I think Frank stepped in and he has done an exceptional job. I think the core of our group is amazing, not just the [starting] 11. Other people have stepped in and done well. Orr Barouch coming in his first year. Jalil Anibaba has stepped in and was a major signing for us. I just think we have a lot to look forward to for next year in terms of one or two tweaks. Besides that, we're ready to go."
ESPN Chicago dishes out its final grades on the season, but during an inconsistent season with various people stepping into the picture in key roles, it was no easy task:
Coaching: Speaking of key roles, the Fire dismissed De los Cobos with about a third of the season in the books, and the team under Klopas took some time in piecing a run together -- a run that turned out to be too little, too late. Nevertheless, Klopas' efforts were a huge step in the right direction. There was less experimenting and significant lineup juggling, more straight-forward opponent research and preparation, and overall the group appeared like it was on the same wavelength with him at the helm. That sentiment typically was not there with De los Cobos.
The Fire's midseason acquisitions of Grazzini and Pardo no doubt helped Klopas in the team earning an 8-5-10 record with him at the helm. But there is no telling how significant De los Cobos' record would have improved if they were in place at the start of the season.
Klopas made some tactical and personnel decisions that helped the team post-De los Cobos -- pairing Dominic Oduro with Patrick Nyarko up front, eventually getting Anibaba into a center back role instead of right back, man marking over zonal marking, just to name a few. Klopas' strong knowledge of the league, his passion regarding the organization and finally the positive results down the stretch gave him a grade of a B. De los Cobos was a low D. GRADE: C+
Goalkeeping: Second-year goalkeeper Sean Johnson had a slow start to the season that resulted in a six-game benching behind Jon Conway. When he returned, Johnson established some consistency, improved reaction to the ball and some big-time saves along the way.
He and the Fire also posted seven shutouts, starting with a scoreless draw against Seattle Sounders FC on June 4. That was the start of a five-game stretch where Johnson and the defense allowed only one goal.
Johnson is only 22 years old, but he has been a major contributor toward this club since midway through his rookie season. Things continue to look up for this fourth-round selection in the 2010 draft. GRADE: B
Defense: Other than Gonzalo Segares at left back (and he started the preseason in the midfield), it was a brand new back line as Chicago lost its starting center backs from the previous season and right back Steven Kinney was hurt all year. Veteran center back Gibbs was asked from the start to lead this young group.
Naturally there were some growing pains, including some brutal road losses against the expansion Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. But as the Fire put together their late run, they also figured out a dependable back line to go with on a regular basis. The Fire's trade with Toronto FC to attain Dan Gargan proved to be the final piece as Anibaba shifted back to his more customary center back position.
Chicago did not have a banner season in the back, but there were some positives moving forward. Anibaba appears to be the real deal, and center back looks strong as a whole. But the Fire might need to explore another outside back option to add some depth. GRADE: C
Midfield: The effectiveness of Pardo and Grazzini changed the dynamic of this team significantly. For a full season, there would have been a huge comfort factor in having this duo in every match to provide a high level of control and create chances. Before their arrival, the midfield was in a poor state, especially from a creative standpoint.
If the Fire bring back Grazzini and Pardo for next season, the midfield needs some better contribution from the rest of the group. Even a budding young player like Marco Pappa took a step back this season. Sure, he had a career high with eight goals. But Pappa also took nearly twice as many shots as the year before, he only had two assists, and he was for the most part ineffective following the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The role of captain Logan Pause was an interesting one throughout the season. Holding midfield is Pause's comfort zone. His brief right back stint should be avoided in the future. He pushed up more when Pardo was brought into the fold, but you're ultimately not going to get much from Pause on the offensive end. Pause's defensive skill set clearly is his strong suit in the midfield.
Among some of the other midfielders, Daniel Paladini provided a tenacious style of play but his impact on the offensive end was minimal. Baggio Husidic saw his playing time cut in half from the previous season, which was an easy call to make from the coaching staff. GRADE: C-
Forward: As frustrating as some of Oduro's missed chances were, in the end he established one of the more productive Fire forward campaigns in quite some time with 12 goals. Nyarko split between forward and midfield during the season and once again led the team with nine assists. And if not for a multitude of frame-hitting strikes, Barouch showed that he could step immediately come off the bench and earn some scoring chances in his limited playing time.
The team's original plan was to have Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari as the main offensive duo. Aside from Chaves' two game-winners at the end of the season and a decent start to his MLS career over the first six games, he took a back seat to the Nyarko-Oduro combo.
Overall, the Fire ranked sixth in the league with 46 goals (they benefited from two own goals). Chicago could certainly benefit from another striker to pair up with Oduro moving into next season, but in looking back on this past year, the Fire had to be pleased with their goal production. GRADE: B