MLS 2012 preview: Chicago Fire
2011 record and finish: 9-9-16 (Sixth place in Eastern Conference)
Additions: GK Jay Nolly; F Kheli Dube; M Rafael Robayo; F Federico Puppo; D Austin Berry; F Lucky Mkosana; D Hunter Jumper; GK Paulo Tornaghi; M Tony Walls; D Arne Friedrich
Losses: F Christian Nazarit; F Gabriel Ferrari; GK Alex Dufty; M Baggio Husidic; GK Jon Conway; F Diego Chaves
Key questions facing this team
1. Can the Fire keep up the momentum?
In 2011, the Fire got off to a bad start under Carlos De Los Cobos, going 1-4-6 until he was fired in late May. He was replaced by technical director Frank Klopas, who had no prior MLS coaching experience, on an interim basis. And yet, the team still went 8-5-10 the rest of the way, including a surge of seven wins in their final 10 games, and fell just three points short of the playoffs. Overall, the Fire finally broke out of their 18-month swoon thanks to a solid core that came together down the stretch, but can they build on their strong finish?
2. Will the turnover set the team back?
Klopas blames the Fire's dire start in 2011 on the club having cycled in 16 new players for the season, resulting in a tortuous integration process. This offseason, the Fire has brought in almost a dozen new players and said goodbye to about half a dozen. But Klopas doesn't there will be a similar adjustment period. "We've brought in some new additions but it wasn't to the point where we almost had to rebuild the whole team," he said. Indeed, only three of the newcomers -- Rafael Robayo, Arne Friedrich and Federico Puppo -- are really expected to compete for starting jobs. What's more, almost all their new signings arrived during preseason, giving the team almost two months to get them up to speed instead of having to adjust on the fly throughout the year.
3. Can Dominic Oduro repeat his form from 2011?
After he was snapped up from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for Calen Carr one game into last season, Oduro powered his way to 12 goals, becoming the first Fire player in seven years to score double-digit goals in MLS. The question now is whether he'll prove to be a one-season wonder. Klopas reckons he's liable to score even more, what with a complimentary striker in Puppo or Orr Barouch and a settled, superior midfield behind him. "If he makes good runs, the ball is going to be there," said Klopas. "I don't see any reason why he shouldn't repeat the season he had last year."
Biggest X factor: A spot for Patrick Nyarko
With 19 assists over the last two seasons, Nyarko has almost three times as many as the next Fire player, Marco Pappa, and his speed is undoubtedly a linchpin for the Fire offense. The question this year is: where will he play? Klopas wants to play a target man alongside Oduro in his 4-4-2 formation, probably ruling out a reprisal of his role up front from last year. And with wide players Robayo and Pappa likely flanking playmaker Sebastian Grazzini and Logan Pause or Pavel Pardo, there might not be room for Nyarko on the field. Klopas has spoken of creating competition for spots. But if the Fire have learned anything from the past seasons, it's that they are best served with Nyarko on the field.
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Breakout player to watch: Orr Barouch
Buried in the Fire's difficult 2011 season was the emergence of Barouch, a 20-year-old Israel-born striker who grew up in California and spent time in the Tigres youth academy. Signed on loan after a preseason trial, Barouch made enough of an impression for the Fire to buy him outright this offseason, having made 28 appearances and nabbing two goals and two assists in spite of starting just twice. At 6-foot-2, he could be that target man Klopas is after and should benefit from playing alongside the dynamic Oduro.
With a core of young goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defenders Anibaba, Friedrich and Cory Gibbs, midfielders Grazzini, Pappa, Pause, Pardo and Nyarko, and forward Oduro, the Fire has built a nice foundation. Add to that newcomers Robayo, a midfielder, and striker Puppo and the Fire should be competitive for a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference, even if depth remains a concern up front and in the back.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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