The two-year playoff absence seemed like an eternity to many in the Chicago Fire organization.
The wait is over. The Fire will be in the Major League Soccer playoffs when they kick off on Halloween, and there are several reasons why.
Here are the top five reasons:
1. Owner Andrew Hauptman and director of soccer operations Javier Leon
Hauptman and Leon took the brunt of the blame last year for the Fire's troubles. It's only fair they be first in line for credit for the team's success.
The key is that they learned from their mistakes.
When Hauptman and Leon opted not to re-sign coach Denis Hamlett after reaching the 2009 Eastern Conference final, they dreamed big, bringing in Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos.
But de los Cobos was not a good fit for MLS -- no international coaches have won the MLS Cup -- and he was fired Memorial Day 2011 early in his second season.
To replace de los Cobos, Hauptman and Leon turned to a familiar face, technical director Frank Klopas, first giving him the job on an interim basis. When Klopas finished the 2011 season 7-2-1, the job was his to keep.
The Fire also seems to be making some headway off the field. In January it signed Quaker to be the club's jersey sponsor. In addition, attendance is up at home games, where the Fire averaged 16,170 through its first 15 matches.
2. Frank Klopas
Teams tend to take on the personality of their coaches, and this one exudes Klopas' strength and determination. The team-first attitude is working well.
When Sebastian Grazzini balked at the Fire picking up his contract option, Klopas managed the matter seamlessly, keeping the Fire focused on the task at hand, even after Grazzini left the team.
When Dominic Oduro and Dan Gargan lost their starting jobs midway through the season, Klopas kept them focused on the big picture, and they haven't shown any unhappiness with their situation. They continue to play important roles in the team's success.
Klopas knows the league, he knows how to work with the players, and he's Chicago through and through. The Fire couldn't have found anyone better to connect with fans.
Klopas is a strong candidate for MLS Coach of the Year.
3. No more Nery Castillos
Midway through the 2009 season the Fire made a splash by signing Mexican forward Nery Castillo, but Castillo was out of shape and contributed little, and the Fire let him go after the season.
The club learned from that.
The Fire has no players making more than $1 million a season, and the club is OK with that. The Fire looked into big-name, big-contract players -- Andriy Schevchenko comes to mind -- and then looked elsewhere. During the transfer period it signed the little-known Sherjill MacDonald and traded for Alvaro Fernandez from Seattle. Both are Designated Players, but neither carries a David Beckham-like price tag or name recognition. Both are starting and contributing.
The key was to find guys who were a good fit, players willing to work harder than they partied, players willing to buy into the team-first attitude.
4. Great depth
Klopas and Co. have bragged about the team's depth all season, especially with their midseason additions.
When Cory Gibbs was injured early in the season, Austin Berry stepped in and has become the favorite to win the MLS Rookie of the Year award.
With midfielder Pavel Pardo out recently, Daniel Paladini and Alex have stepped in to share the load and keep the Fire on track.
Dominic Oduro and Dan Gargan were starters at the start of the season and now are valuable substitutes. Wells Thompson and Michael Videira also are no strangers to MLS action, and rookie Hunter Jumper has shown well in limited minutes off the bench.
5. On-field leadership
Talking to veteran defender Arne Friedrich after the 3-1 loss to Philadelphia earlier this month, it was easy to sense his determination to correct the team's mistakes and start a new winning streak.
Having World Cup veterans such as Friedrich and midfielder Pavel Pardo has had clear benefits for the Fire (Alvaro Fernandez also is a World Cup veteran but is new to the team and doesn't seem very vocal).
But much credit also goes to captain Logan Pause, who has shown steady leadership through the bad times and into the good. The longest-tenured current Fire player has helped Klopas set a tone for the team, and he hopes to reap the benefits with a playoff run that stretches into December.
Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz