For the past 11 seasons, the Chicago Fire have done everything they could to repeat the team's magical debut into Major League Soccer. The Fire's 1998 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup titles remain the most storied accomplishments within one season in this franchise's history, and they would like to taste that championship flavor once again.
The organization always has high expectations, and for the past decade the Fire continue to consistently reach the playoffs. They also consistently have reached the conference finals, coming up one step short of reaching the MLS title game for the past three years.
The Fire's recent offseason has been one of some specific changes at all areas on the pitch, and now we get to see how things fall into place starting this Saturday when Chicago hits the road to face the New York Red Bulls (6 p.m. CT, ESPN).
Consistency is not an overused word in the realm of soccer, and while the Fire do consistently get close to the MLS Cup year in and year out, last season's team specifically had a lot of dramatic peaks and valleys along the way.
The Fire had a good undefeated run at the start of the season, but could not close the books and solidify a playoff position early. They had a decent season on the road but had a disappointing home record (5-4-6) and were outscored 17-16 at Toyota Park. They had their share of strong wins, but then they also had some haunting losses, including two defeats by shootout against Tigres UANL in the SuperLiga final and the Eastern Conference Semifinal against eventual champion Real Salt Lake.
But this is a new year with new pieces, and it is a much different vibe than last year. Heading into the 2009 campaign, the majority of the '08 squad was back. Now, you have a new head coach in Carlos de los Cobos who is taking over for Denis Hamlett. And the team has repeatedly talked about playing a more attacking and attractive brand of soccer this year.
Here is a look, position by position, at what the 2010 Chicago Fire have in place:
Forward: Two former Fulham teammates will together lead Chicago's attack, with target forward Brian McBride and new signing Collins John pressuring opposing defenses. Marking up against either one of these players will be a tough assignment. McBride at one point held the league lead in goals during the 2009 season. But a shoulder injury kept him out of the lineup, and when he returned he only managed one goal the rest of the way -- still good enough to lead the team with seven total. This season, third-year forward Patrick Nyarko probably is the odd man out from a regular starting slot, but still expect some decent playing time out of him. His pace on the pitch should be pretty valuable, especially in the latter stages of a game.
Midfield: The Fire begin life without Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and his precision passing and clutch play will be missed. Without Blanco, this year's Fire midfield definitely is a faster lineup that should cover some ground. Marco Pappa is a creative presence who will only continue to get better. John Thorrington is a bucket of energy who just needs to occasionally be a little smarter when he challenges in situations where he is not playing the ball. The Fire brought in Salvadoran Julio Martinez on the right side, and he has some versatility to his game. And Logan Pause anchors the defensive midfield slot. The one unknown is just how much solid depth there is behind this group. Justin Mapp obviously wants to rebound from last season. Baggio Husidic still is getting his feet wet. Mike Banner was reliable in various roles and even filled a necessary void when he dropped back to left defensive back. First-round draft pick Corben Bone has appeared to quickly recover from a preseason knee injury, but there's no question that he is behind schedule.
Defense: There is no official word out regarding the possibility of Salvadoran defender Deris Umanzor signing with Chicago, though reports have circulated that De los Cobos would be interested in having Umanzor on board. But for the moment, it looks like Poland defender Krzysztof Krol is going to take the left back role as things were intended this offseason, filling the position previously occupied by Gonzalo Segares. Wilman Conde and C.J. Brown will once again take hold of the middle of the defense. Tim Ward progressed during the 2009 season, but that momentum was cut short because of a broken toe on his left foot. He should be considered the top choice as the right back. The Fire signed draft picks Steve Kinney (outside back) and Kwame Watson-Siriboe (center back) less than two weeks ago, and with Kinney appearing to have some regular reps in the preseason, we may see De los Cobos go to some of his youngsters early.
Goalkeeper: So much for penciling in Jon Busch as a given to play every single minute of every game for a third straight season. With Busch recently waived by the Fire, they have now opted to give Andrew Dykstra his first chance in the net, and everyone is curious to see if he will live up to the team's high praise. Preseason obviously went well for him, and he has trained with many of these guys for the past year. Dykstra has some big shoes to fill with the departure of Busch, and with the recent personnel move taking place so close to the start of the regular season, there will be a watchful eye on his performance from the get-go.
2010 MLS season predictions: Take out of this what you will. As we learned with the numerous draws and swings in the standings last year, parity in MLS is measured at the highest end of the spectrum:
Eastern Conference: 1. Columbus Crew; 2. Chicago Fire; 3. Toronto FC; 4. D.C. United; 5. New York Red Bulls; 6. New England Revolution; 7. Philadelphia Union; 8. Kansas City Wizards
Western Conference: 1. Seattle Sounders; 2. Real Salt Lake; 3. Chivas USA; 4. Los Angeles Galaxy; 5. Houston Dynamo; 6. Colorado Rapids; 7. FC Dallas; 8. San Jose Earthquakes
Playoff teams: East -- Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire; West -- Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake; Wild Card -- Toronto FC, Chivas USA, Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo
Eastern Conference champion: Columbus Crew
Western Conference champion: Seattle Sounders
2010 MLS Cup winner: Columbus Crew