BRIDGEVIEW, IL - OCTOBER 12: Sebastian Grazzini #10 of the Chicago Fire celebrates a second half goal against FC Dallas during an MLS match at Toyota Park on October 12, 2011 in Bridgeview, Illinois. FC Dallas defeated the Fire 2-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
If the Fire can remain healthy in 2012, this could be a great year, writes Hot Time In Old Town's Tweed Thornton.
2011 record: 9-9-16
Key additions: Rafael Robayo, Arne Friedrich, Federico Puppo, Jay Nolly, Austin Berry, Jay Nolly, Paolo Tornaghi, Kheli Dube, Hunter Jumper
Key losses: Baggio Husidic, Diego Chaves, Yamith Cuesta, Josip Mikulic, Jon Conway
Projected starting XI: Sean Johnson; Dan Gargan, Jalil Anibaba, Cory Gibbs, Gonzalo Segares; Rafael Robayo, Pavel Pardo, Marco Pappa; Sebastian Grazzini; Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro
Bold prediction: 1st place in the Eastern Conference
Biggest fear: Injuries plague the veteran lynchpins
Chicago finished the last twelve games of the 2011 season with a 7-2-3 record. Their final loss total of 9 was right up there with Eastern Conference leaders Kansas City and Houston. The only Eastern Conference team to win the 2011 season series against the Fire was Philadelphia. Chicago's entire core team returns this year. The biggest off-season loss of Baggio Husidic turned into a major gain as he is replaced by 27 year-old and former Millonarios captain Rafael Robayo. Robayo is such an upgrade that he is projected to push Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa or Fire captain Logan Pause to the bench. German international Arne Friedrich looks to backup Cory Gibbs and Jalil Anibaba. You'll have to excuse the Windy City if the confidence in camp shocks you.
Health and absences loom large in this field of optimism though. Veteran defender Cory Gibbs and midfield maestro Sebastian Grazzini have both missed multiple preseason games due to injury precaution. Chicago suffered whenever those two didn't take the field. Robayo adds midfield depth but his scouting report doesn't come with Grazzini's magic. Chicago signed Friedrich but his health is a major question mark. Rookie Austin Berry will be stepping into the limelight should Friedrich and Gibbs be unavailable. Berry has the potential to start in MLS for a long time but he doesn't come with the professional experience defenders Yamith Cuesta and Josip Mikulic provided last year. Fire and USMNT goaltender Sean Johnson looks to miss significant parts of this summer for the 2012 Summer Olympics. New goaltenders Jay Nolly or Paolo Tornaghi will have to step in and work with whatever defense is on hand.
There's also little room for regression in 2011 performance. Dominic Oduro needs to score over 10 goals again. Grazzini needs to bring a mix of goals and assists. Pavel Pardo has to continue to provide excellent service. Pappa and Nyarko appeared to have quiet seasons but they finished with 8 goals and 9 assists respectively. Even Federico Puppo has to score six goals to match the countrymen he seems to be replacing in Diego Chaves.
At the same time no one would be surprised if those repeat performances take place. The Fire managed to tread water in 2011 through goalkeeper switches, head coach changes, and midfield combinations that have been greatly upgraded. With the fight the squad showed in 2011 added in with the benefits MLS teams have when they carry over players from one year to the next, Chicago should at the very least improve in 2012 and eek out a playoff spot.
- Tweed Thornton, Hot Time In Old Town