Season Preview - Chicago Fire

No team in MLS appears more confident heading into the 2009 campaign than the Chicago Fire. If you go to their team website, you will be greeted with an advertisment for a five-game ticket plan which includes, as they call it, 'Playoff Game One.' They're actually that sure that they'll make the playoffs this year.

And to be honest, they have good reason to be. Chicago was extremely strong last year, finishing second to the Columbus Crew both in the Eastern Conference regular season and conference finals, and missing out on MLS cup by just one goal. Everything appeared to be working well for the franchise, whether it was the on-field play, the notably strong and passionate fan support, the uniforms - ok, the block 'Best Buy' with the white stripe across the front does look a bit crap, but that's a minor point.

The best news of all is that they look to be almost exactly the same squad that they had last year. The only players they lost were low-impact reserves like Stephen King and Andy Herron. They return the entire defensive line, which with Wilman Conde, Bakary Soumare and Gonzalo Segares is certainly the best in the league. And if Dasan Robinson can stay healthy, it could be even better. Scary. Marco Pappa oozed potential playing on the wing in limited minutes last year. If he starts, watch out. Opposite him, Justin Mapp could be a truly standout winger if he decides to care for an entire season. Logan Pause couldn't attack goal to save his life, but he is still a solid defensive midfielder. He doesn't have to attack, though, because of the guys up front.

A lot of the offensive responsibilities rest on the hunched shoulders of number-10 attacking midfield Mexican legend Cuahtemoc Blanco. You can hate him for his scowling on-pitch theatrics, and many do, but it's hard to question his heart, passion and creative playmaking ability. And of course, he is aided up top by Brian McBride, himself an American legend. He's played in 3 World Cups, scored 62 goals in MLS, almost single-handedly saved Fulham from relegation in the EPL in 2008... the list of accolades goes on. Oh yeah, and Chris Rolfe is pretty decent too, what with 9 goals and 7 assists last year, playing his way into National Team contention. And I haven't even gotten into the potential of Mike Banner or Patrick Nyarko. Bottom line, Chicago are stacked.

(And did I mention that netminder Jon Busch was the league's top goalkeeper last year?)

In my opinion, the best teams in MLS are always those that have a solid lineup, all eleven spots, with no discernable weaknesses in the core of the starters. Houston had it in 2006 and 2007, as did New England. Columbus had it last year. Chicago looks to be that way this year. Unless they have a ridiculous amount of injuries, or Jon Busch forgets how to play keeper, the Fire look they'll make good on that promise for Playoff Game One. And possibly Playoff Game Two. If they aren't the best team in the league, they're mighty close.

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