Chicago Fire 2013 Season Preview: They’re Better, but are they The Best?

We want a better trophy than this. - Rainier Ehrhardt

For the Chicago Fire, the 2012 MLS season ended with a bit of a thud. An early exit to the eventual MLS Cup runners-up Houston Dynamo has Fire fans excited to see what the club can accomplish in 2013.

2012 MLS Record: 17 W-11 L-6 D, GD: +5 (4th in East, lost to Houston Dynamo in Eastern Conference knockout round)

Key Additions: M Joel Lindpere (trade), M Jeff Larentowicz (trade), M Brendan King (signed), M Dilly Duka (trade), M Yazid Atouba (SuperDraft), F Maicon Santos (Re-Entry Draft), F Quincy Amarikwa (trade)

Key Losses: GK Jay Nolly (option declined), M Pavel Pardo (retired), M Alvaro Fernández (loan), F Federico Puppo (loan), F Dominic Oduro (traded), F Guillermo Franco (option declined, later retired)

Projected Starting XI - 4-4-2: GK Sean Johnson, LB Gonzalo Segares, CB Arne Friedrich, CB Austin Berry, RB Logan Pause, LM Dilly Duka, CM Jeff Larentowicz, CM Joel Lindpere RM Patrick Nyarko FWD Chris Rolfe FWD Sherjill MacDonald

Optimistic Predictions: The Men in Red turn out to be as good as they played last August and September during their hottest streak of the season. Berry gets even better after Rookie of the Year season and anchors a stout back line. The revamped midfield comes together quickly. Rolfe and MacDonald continue to score goals up top. The club's improved depth leads to less fatigue as compared to last year. All of this combined leads to a first place Eastern Conference finish and a deep US Open Cup run.

Pessimistic Predictions: The club has trouble early on and questions about Frank Klopas' ability to manage at the top level of American soccer quickly emerge. Everyone's worst fears about the goal-scoring situation come true and they struggle to put away opponents. Despite getting called up to the United States Men's National Team earlier this year, Sean Johnson makes a couple of quick mental errors early in the season and lets them get to his head. All of this leads to the club failing to make the playoffs and having to start from scratch ahead of the 2014 season.

Outlook: While there a number of questions surrounding the Chicago Fire ahead of the 2013 season, it should be noted how similar this team looks when compared to last year. There's still Sean Johnson in net, Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich anchoring the back line and Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald up top providing a bulk of the goals.

Of the players that the Fire lost, retiring midfielder Pavel Pardo is the biggest hole to replace in central midfield. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the Fire set out to significantly remake their midfield this offseason.

The first move was bringing in Joel Lindpere from the New York Red Bulls. The Estonian was an absolute workhorse for the energy drinks, appearing in 34 matches and notching five goals and 5 assists. If he goes into beast mode again this year, we'll be in good shape.

The next big move was trading for Jeff Larentowicz. The former Colorado Rapids player is another gritty midfielder who logged a lot of minutes last year. He'll be tasked with being Pardo's main replacement, which is an admittedly high standard. But the veteran should be able to step up and do it.

Perhaps the biggest wild card in the midfield then is Dilly Duka. Part of that is due to the fact that, a) he came from the Columbus Crew, and b) it was in exchange for Dominic Oduro who, while somewhat erratic, was a fairly popular player. Duka never really reached his full potential in Columbus, so unlike Lindpere and Larentowicz, who are much more proven veterans, Duka will have to silence some critics this year. If he can, he'll make Fire fans forget Oduro in no time.

But overall, the midfield is the big unknown. In goal, Sean Johnson should be able to keep growing into an elite ‘keeper. The defense should be in good shape, with Logan Pause at right back being the only real question mark. As far as offense is concerned, Rolfe and MacDonald should provide some consistent goals as long as neither gets hurt. If one (or both) doesn't show up or gets injured, the club will likely go for another striker during the summer transfer window.

The club's depth should be improved this season. If any of the defenders slip up, Steven Kinney or Jalil Anibaba should be an adequate replacement. The Brazilian Alex should be given opportunities to shine in midfield or perhaps even up front. And Maicon Santos and Quincy Amarikwa provide MLS proven depth in the interim if either Rolfe or MacDonald should face any issues.

Overall, the Fire made some moves that may have appeared small on the surface, but addressed the needs that arose after last season. Instead of finding that "playmaker" in the transfer window, the Men in Red are hopeful that players will emerge from the current crop over the course of the season. Does this club have what it takes to lift an MLS Cup at the end of the season? Well, they may need a little bit of luck along the way, but crazier things have happened in MLS.

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