It’s the season for optimism.
On the eve of preseason training, the Chicago Fire’s hopes are appropriately high: the team finished 2011 very well on the field, the roster additions are getting good reviews from national pundits, and the biggest issue off the field has been sewn up with Quaker’s decision to sign on as jersey sponsor. If the players and coaches can beat Friday’s forecasted snowstorm out of town to Florida to begin training, everybody in Fire red will be happy.
“Anytime we can get a hometown team involved with a hometown company, it’s a match made in heaven, not to mention the fact we have such synergies between the two brands,” said Kathy Carter of Soccer United Marketing, the league’s marketing arm of Quaker’s sponsorship. “From the league’s perspective it’s just another step toward the Chicago Fire’s continued quest to become one of the best clubs in Major League Soccer. We feel very good that they’re doing really terrific things.”
That’s the business side.
Step 1 on the field will be breaking the team’s two-year playoff drought, but everyone at Toyota Park is thinking beyond that too.
“The expectations are high,” Fire owner Andrew Hauptman said. “We’re not in it this year to do a little bit better than last year. That’s not what all the work has been about. The work is really about competing at the highest level and obviously making it to the playoffs, and once you’re in the playoffs, you never know.”
The Fire believes it solidified its technical staff recently with the addition of executive Guillermo Petrei, who will support coach Frank Klopas off the field.
“He’s a very smart, savvy guy, and his job is going to be more about overseeing the soccer operations,” Hautpman said of Petrie. “It’s really about making sure that nothing falls through the cracks, that we’re being very analytical, we’re being very thoughtful.”
Klopas might not be the technical director anymore, but he still holds the player personnel reins in the same way Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena leads his club’s technical staff. He’ll continue to work with Andell Holdings’ Javier Leon as well as player personnel director Mike Jeffries also.
For now they’re set for Florida. With no other major roster additions expected, the club will rely on this group of players and expect them to produce.
Hauptman emailed or phoned holiday wishes to the players, “and some of the responses to that were very telling in terms of the mentality that they’re coming into this year with,” he said. “Guys like Patrick Nyarko, who came out and said to me, ‘I’m due. This year is for me. I’m due to have a breakout year.’”
“We did some good things toward the end of the season last year,” second-year defender Jalil Anibaba said Thursday at Quaker’s downtown offices, “and we’re just trying to pick up where we left off as far as momentum is concerned.”
Last year’s breakout scorer, Dominic Oduro is back, optimistic his career year in 2011 can be bettered.
“It’s always good to move a step or two or three steps ahead of what you did last year,” Oduro said, “so I want to score more than what I did (12) last year.”
Playmaker Sebastian Grazzini seems set to put the hamstring problems that plagued him last year behind him, Klopas said. Having a healthy Grazzini for a full season would be a big boost.
“He’s fantastic,” Klopas said. “There’s no issue. He had what sometimes players have, pulled muscles.”
The club’s first SuperDraft pick was Austin Berry, adding to a quality group at central defense and leading some to believe last year’s top pick, Anibaba, might move to right back again.
Said Anibaba: “I want to stay wherever the club needs me. That’s the only mentality worth spending any time developing. ”
That, and a feeling of optimism that good days lie ahead, starting March 17.
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