The mood in the Chicago Fire's postgame locker room Wednesday night was one of disappointment and determination.
"With every setback there's opportunities," Fire coach Frank Klopas said after a 2-1 loss. "We're going to come back even stronger and work even harder to make sure we're able to take the next step next year."
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How the Fire will take that next step, and any steps that eventually lead to an MLS Cup, is unclear.
This much is clear, however: The Fire has a lot of work to do this off-season.
"I know that we're all going to work very hard, and especially with (owner Andrew Hauptman's) support, to make sure that this team is in this position every year, where we try to compete for championships," Klopas said.
Klopas, president of soccer operations Javier Leon and vice president of soccer operations Guillermo Petrei will spend a good part of their off-season traveling in search of new players, and they've made a number of contacts in Europe and Latin America in an effort to find talented players who will be a good fit in Chicago.
The key this winter will be to identify those players and get them here. Easier said than done, of course.
They thought they had those players last winter, but Rafael Robayo and Federico Puppo lasted half a season. The year before, Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves also fell short. Sebastian Grazzini was a find, but, well, that's a story in and of itself.
But while the Fire did well to make the playoffs without Grazzini and Marco Pappa after their midseason departures, it would do even better if it could get another playmaker with Grazzini's vision and technical ability. The Fire needs someone who can direct the attack, someone who can put a teammate in position to score with the right pass, someone who can help the Fire maintain possession a little more.
"Sometimes you need the ball to bounce your way, and probably the middle part of the season when we really went on a run we were getting some fortunate bounces," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "We were able to kind of take some heat from other teams but still winning games."
The Fire also showed all season it lacked a top-notch scorer. Team leader Chris Rolfe had 8 goals, ranking far down the list of league leaders, and like his team he struggled down the stretch. Sherjill MacDonald did well and was the target forward the Fire lacked, but he wouldn't be considered among the league's elite with 4 goals and 4 assists in 14 games since joining the Fire.
MacDonald is a Designated Player, the highest-paid player on the team, according to MLS Players Union numbers, and the Fire brass will have to decide if he can play up to that designation.
The other DP, Alvaro Fernandez, was a disappointment since coming over from Seattle in a July trade. He clearly did not play up to his salary level, No. 2 on the team. The Fire brass will have to decide whether he just needs time to adjust to Chicago and his new teammates.
Fernandez is a World Cup veteran and still in Uruguay's player pool. The Fire's other two World Cup vets, Pavel Pardo and Arne Friedrich, are aging. Friedrich has been clear he wants to be back; now it's the Fire's turn to decide if it can find the money for him.
Figuring that out is all part of the next step.
Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz