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Friday, March 26, 2010
Keeper of the Fire holds key to season

Frank Dell'Apa

2009 record and finish: 11-7-12, 45 points

Key additions: M Corben Bone (Wake Forest University/Carolina Dynamo), F Collins John (NEC Nijmegen), G Sean Johnson (University of Central Florida), D Krzysztof Król (Jagellonia Bialystok), M Julio Martinez (Leon FC)

Key losses: F Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Vera Cruz), G Jon Busch, D Brandon Prideaux (retired), F Chris Rolfe (Aalborg BK), D Gonzalo Segares (Apollon Limassol)

Key questions:

1. Will Jon Busch be missed?

Busch, surprisingly, was waived the week before the start of the season, leaving the starting position to Andrew Dykstra. There is speculation that coach Carlos de los Cobos will be adding a keeper from south of the border, but until then Dykstra is the starter. At 6-foot-4, Dykstra provides a contrast to the undersized (5-foot-10), overachieving Busch. Dykstra, though, has little professional experience, performing only in a U.S. Open Cup match last year.

2. Are the Fire better without Blanco?

There have been few MLS players who have shown Blanco's picardia, a combination of guile and provocatorial display. Blanco created and was an excellent finisher, dangerous on set pieces. But he did sometimes slow things down when the younger Fire attackers might have needed to be going full speed. Part of the lentitude was because of Blanco's age, part because of his style. In any case, without Blanco, the Fire will have a lower-profile point of reference in midfield, but it should attack with greater velocity.

3. Is Carlos de los Cobos the right choice?

Most foreign coaches face a steep learning curve in the MLS, partly because of the league's unique restrictions on player movement and salaries. After playing in Mexico (where spending limits are high) and coaching in El Salvador (where budgets are limited), de los Cobos has experienced both ends of the soccer spectrum in the region. In Chicago, he should find support from the Mexican-American community, but he will have to adjust to salary caps and limited transfers.

4. Will young talent keep getting away?

Bakary Soumare departed for France last year at midseason. Chris Rolfe and Gonzalo Segares went to Europe after the season. Who's next? The Fire have a history of discovering and developing young players -- DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Pickens, Damani Ralph are strong examples -- but if the team continues to lose prospects, it will have to continue finding replacements.

MLS team previews

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC

Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas

Biggest X factor: Goalkeeping

Busch and the Chicago back line had developed the understanding that is crucial to defending. Busch's knowledge of the league will be difficult to replace; his agility and reactions are exceptional, which allowed him to succeed despite a lack of height. But shorter goalkeepers are at a disadvantage on set pieces, and Dykstra's height brings a different dimension to the position. How the Fire defend corners and free kicks could change, possibly for the better, as Dykstra directs things.

Breakout player to watch: Collins John

John scored 11 goals in 35 Premiership appearances as a 20-year-old for Fulham in 2005-06. But he has not approached that production since, as he lost his starting role after seven games the following season, bouncing to four different teams before joining the Fire. John still is young enough to relaunch his career, and he has the experience to develop a partnership with Brian McBride up front.

Outlook:

Three coaches -- Dave Sarachan, Juan Carlos Osorio and Denis Hamlett -- have guided the Fire to the Eastern Conference finals in four of the last five years while failing to advance to the MLS Cup. Now it is Carlos de los Cobos' turn to try to take the next step.

C.J. Brown and Wilman Conde will provide the veteran leadership in back, bringing along Dasan Robinson, Tim Ward and whoever replaces outside backs Prideaux and Segares. Julio Martinez, who played for El Salvador under de los Cobos, will direct the midfield in place of Blanco. Logan Pause and John Thorrington provide midfield support. Marco Pappa is a major threat on the right wing. McBride remains one of the best target forwards in the U.S., making it easy for attackers to run off him while he holds the ball. Patrick Nyarko should -- and Calen Carr and newcomer Corben Bone could -- benefit from the presence of veteran strikers, although they likely will be used as substitutes.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.




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