Or, Avoiding Cubs syndrome: what the Fire must do for the rest of this season to prepare for the next.
While the Fire are not yet mathematically out of contention for a playoff spot, let's be honest: it's not going to happen. Fans were spun around on this carousel every week last season when every disappointing result came with a headline on the Fire homepage about how the playoffs were still in reach. Ljungberg and Castillo were supposed to lead the charge, but we all know where that took us. Grazzini and Pardo helped produce a solid showing against the Union a week ago, but earning another draw made Sunday's match in Vancouver an absolute must win. Putting on a miserable performance in that 4-2 loss to the worst team in the league was surely the lowest point of the season and rules out any playoff push.
The focus now must shift. Players must not be allowed to phone in the remaining 12 league games and (hopefully) two Open Cup matches. If the dreaded "There's always next year" quip makes its way from Wrigleyville out to Bridgeview, then the Fire are truly in trouble. Follow me after the break for my thoughts on how the Fire as a team and an organization can finish this season in the best way possible to prepare for the next
1) Win the Open Cup. This is not an option. League games no longer matter except as preparation for the Cup. The Fire are kings of the Cup and it's well past time that it come back home. Winning a trophy be a very bright spot for players and fans in an otherwise frustrating and often painful season (and at least the team can't be relegated like Carling Cup victors Birmingham City). That kind of morale booster will be essential for maintaining a degree of confidence and comraderie in the locker room.
But even more importantly, winning the USOC would qualify the team for CONCACAF Champions League play. The CCL is finally coming into its own in terms of importance and recognition and the Fire need to be on that stage. A CCL berth could also be a draw for potential new signings.
2) Build cohesion on the field. Frank Klopas' approach to strategic has been pragmatic from the start. At first, this was acceptable; he shored up a defense that was giving up goals like candy at a parade. The draws were a little less irksome than under CDLC because at least they weren't letting in 2-3 goals a game. But while the defense has come together, the offense is still lacking considerably. Klopas' style is looking less like momentary pragmatism and more like MLS 1.0. The offensive play is too direct, too many long balls, too much wing play, not enough creativity. The team has had great difficulty breaking down defenses, creating quality chances, and finishing them.
Grazzini and Pardo are supposed to be a part of the solution. But the misplaced passes and unanticipated runs in the Vancouver game showed that new players need time to work with the existing team to build chemistry. Outside of the Open Cup, the goal for each league game should not be to win any way possible but to allow players to get to know each other and develop the chemistry necessary for future success. This should benefit the team's chances in the Open Cup, provide a solid foundation for next year, and may even lead to a few wins along the way. So far, pressure and desperation haven't driven the team to success. Maybe this will.
3) Find a coach. This process should have begun the day Klopas was named interim manager, but as far as anyone knows, it hasn't. Nevertheless, it is evident that Frank isn't the answer. He claimed at first that he wasn't interested in the position long term, so let's hope that hasn't changed. As much as I like having someone in charge who has roots in the Fire organization, Klopas isn't working out and other alumni options are becoming scarce as Jesse Marsch is being strongly linked to the Montreal job and Bob Bradley is the favored finalist for the Egypt national team position.
A new manager doesn't need to be a former Chicago player, but must be someone who understands MLS, not just based on its past but on its future. Jason Kreis and Sigi Schmidt seem to be the best examples of that in the league at the moment. Whoever it is must have a vision and the ability to communicate that vision to the team. CDLC had a plan but lacked the capacity to get his team to execute it. Klopas either doesn't have that vision in spite of his history with the Fire, or it is simply out of touch with the reality of where the league is headed.
Not having a new manager by the end of the season or shortly thereafter will severely limit the new coach's ability to evaluate current players, set priorities for the combine, various drafts, and academy programs, communicate with players, and develop an identity for the group on the pitch. A good offseason and preseason begins the moment the last whistle is blown this fall.
4) Invest in the MLS youth movement. The Fire have one of the most extensive academy systems in MLS. Yet they have signed only one Homegrown Player (with another rumored) who hasn't seen any minutest with the senior side. Young players are ideal for new managers with new systems. Not that the Fire should field a team of 20 year-olds, but they should work to improve their own youth infrastructure and benefit from it.
5) Continue to improve the organization's off-field performance. Ryan Sealock just wrote extensively about his concerns with the Fire's ownership and I think he is on the mark. Andrew Hauptman communicate more with fans and make a statement about the direction of the club. If he says nothing when his team is performing so awfully, it gives the distinct impression that he doesn't care. Of course, he should, if he wants to make money. Attendance is noticeably low, as it should be if the team can't perform well. Fans want to know that he is invested in the club and wants to see it succeed. Right now, it looks like he just wants to say he owns a sports team somewhere.
The Fire made significant marketing progress in the last offseason, especially in terms of season ticket sales. How can that continue if the team doesn't win? And the organization still leaves a lot to be desired in other areas, such as local media coverage, particularly in newspapers and on the radio. The most glaring void is the lack of a sponsor. But who wants to sponsor a losing team? The offseason is the time to build excitement from a USOC victory and future development.
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Overall, this has been a very disappointing yearfor a team with such history in MLS. Even though the playoffs are out of reach (in my humble but frustrated opinion), there is still much to be done in the final third of the regular season. It is not yet time to simply write off the rest of the campaign. It's simply time to change priorities. Foolishly chasing after that slim, mathematical chance of making the playoffs only to be let down in the end will only hurt the team's future. After all, winning a trophy, qualify for the CCL, building chemistry and cohesion, and finding a new manager wouldn't be so bad, even on top of a two win season. Who knows, maybe they'll even pick up all three points at home one of these days.
Coming next: a look at how to begin taking these steps at the upcoming away tilt in New York.