Let's set the ground rules for the Chicago Fire's off-season right away.
If the Fire doesn't sign at least two designated players this winter, fans should see it as a sign the club isn't serious about winning.
Real designated players. Not players who get the label because of their loan deal but because of their salary and proven ability to produce. The Fire needs at least a couple of players who can do what Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez have done for the Los Angeles Galaxy, what Clint Dempsey, Osvaldo Alonso and Obafemi Martins have done for Seattle. What, yes, Jermaine Jones has done for New England.
"We have the resources to sign however many we like," coach and director of soccer Frank Yallop told the media Wednesday. "It depends on the financial side of it. There's a limit, but it's a pretty good ceiling for us to go and get players. We're excited about that. I'm excited about that where I'm not sitting here saying, we've got $600,000 to go get a player. We've got some real numbers to go sign guys, so that's good. Two or three, hopefully."
No excuses. No blaming injuries. No blaming a lack of allocation money. No blaming the previous front office for mismanaging the salary cap. No blaming the league, even if it comes up with another "blind draw" to send a player like Jones elsewhere. No blaming another club if a player loan falls through at the last minute.
Five seasons with just one playoff game means there can be no more excuses.
If the next time the Fire plays at Toyota Park it is still the only team in MLS without a DP on the active roster, fans should ask for their ticket money back. Fire fans have seen enough of trying to win with good players.
The Fire roster is filled with good players and, especially toward the end of this season, a few players who didn't belong in MLS. That's not good enough. Great players win championships, but the only great players at Toyota Park are found in the visitors' locker room.
Who knows, maybe the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union must renegotiate this winter will allow teams to sign more than the current maximum of three DPs.
The Fire needs guys who can put the ball in the net, and a guy who can set them up also. Only three Fire players since 2003 have scored in double digits in a season. The Galaxy, which finished second in the race for this season's Supporters Shield, has three double-digit scorers this season. Shield winner Seattle has two double-digit scorers, and Lamar Neagle almost made it also with 9.
Quincy Amarikwa led the Fire's mediocre attack with 8 goals.
And the Fire needs players to bolster a leaky defense that was especially vulnerable this season in the waning moments of a game. It had to be so disheartening to the players and coaches to see points disappear so often just before the final whistle.
"We had problems everywhere," Fire captain Jeff Larentowicz said. "You could say that we need to create goals and score goals, but at the same time we had trouble stopping them too. There are many things that need to be fixed."
How well the Fire shops for players this off-season will tell fans all they need to know.
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