Key month ahead in rebuilding Fire soccer

 
 
Updated 1/1/2011 11:29 AM
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  • Fire midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, right, is gone after less than a full season and has signed to play in Europe. He represents just one of many departures the local MLS franchise has to fill for next season.

    Fire midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, right, is gone after less than a full season and has signed to play in Europe. He represents just one of many departures the local MLS franchise has to fill for next season. Associated Press

As the new year dawns, so does a new era in Chicago Fire soccer. And what kind of era that will be should be decided in January.

After two straight years in the conference championship game, the Fire didn't even make the playoffs in 2010.

If Dallas and Colorado can make it to MLS Cup, then the Fire should be able to rise again in 2011. But now there's a widespread belief, inside and outside of Toyota Park, that things could just as easily go the other way.

The Fire might emulate D.C. United, a once-proud franchise that tumbled to the bottom of the MLS standings last season. And if the Fire continues its descent, it could be a couple of years before anyone can right the ship again.

A quarter of the 2010 roster is gone. Forward Collins John and defender Krzysztof Krol were released after a year of service, a news release announcing their fate the night before Thanksgiving. Midfielders Peter Lowry and John Thorrington, a pair of respected veterans, left in the MLS expansion draft that day.

Now Freddie Ljungberg is gone to Celtic in Scotland, and Wilman Conde signed with Mexican side Atlas.

Add the retirements of Brian McBride and C.J. Brown to that mix, and you've got some significant changes, along with some significant cap space available for the new season, which opens March 19.

The Fire will be starting over: Two new starting center backs, two new forwards, a couple new midfielders ...

That's eight players gone from the 24-man roster, and the roster is being expanded to 30 for 2011.

At least goalkeeper appears set. Sean Johnson and Andrew Dykstra are young and inexperienced, but they seem secure in their roster spots. Of course, so did Jon Busch a year ago.

Coach Carlos de los Cobos, technical director Frank Klopas and new director of player personnel Mike Jeffries have been busy traveling to Europe and South America to find players who may be a better fit for de los Cobos' system and MLS than John and Krol, not to mention Julio Martinez and Deris Umanzor. Names could be announced as early as this week.

Picking up defender Cory Gibbs in the re-entry draft was a good move. Solid and experienced, he'll need help and he needs to stay healthy.

The brain trust will try its luck again in the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 13, though reports out of Seattle say the Fire will lose its second-round pick to the Sounders as part of the trade/rental agreement that brought Ljungberg to Chicago, however briefly.

This might be their last chance, especially for a coach who ended last season on thin ice and has yet to hire two new assistants to replace the pair dismissed. Since Julian Posada joined the club as team president Sept. 14 at least two team vice presidents are gone from the front office, and a few staffers were laid off.

With Cuauhtemoc Blanco returned to Mexico and its profits sinking, Best Buy decided to retire as the club's shirt sponsor. It's Posada's job to find a replacement. For a club that has yet to make a profit, the importance of finding a new shirt sponsor can't be underestimated.

It's just one more thing on the Fire's cluttered, critical to-do list for the new year.

oschwarz@dailyherald.com