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When good teams go bad: the DP conundrum

Some designated player signings aren't so black and white
Some designated player signings aren't so black and white

The past couple of weeks have filled Fire fans heads with visions of sugar plums dancing around (or in this case world class players running around and scoring goals in Fire red). I have to admit, the Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack rumors got me excited. Most sane fans (including myself) knew these rumors were extremely far-fetched at best and a product of extremely shoddy journalism at worst. I don't need to tell anyone the ridiculous price tag that would come with these players, not to mention trying to structure a contract that fits in the still archaic salary cap structure of MLS. We would all love for players of this caliber to come to the Fire, don't get me wrong. Jersey sales alone would skyrocket. But what we would like and what is actually plausible is sometimes vastly different.

Lost in all this hoopla is another facet of a DP/no DP signing that Frank Klopas seems to have grasped well and has elaborated on as of late: how they actually fit into the team. Frank has recently stated that he looks for players that not only fit into the style of soccer the Fire wish to play, but also into the team chemistry and the locker room in general. We all have had that cancer in the clubhouse with a team we support at one time or another. It's one thing if a player is struggling to find form and gets a bit frustrated. In most cases the player can soldier on and get out of his funk. But when a player is so disruptive in the locker room that it actually affects the team as a whole, the options are clear: cut the cancer out or suffer the consequences. Follow me after the break for some more thoughts on the DP/no DP issue...

They say that inspiration can come from odd sources. While brainstorming ideas for this article, I stumbled upon the movie Jurassic Park on TV. As luck would have it, one of the characters happened to mutter a fitting line for this piece as I was watching (credit to Jeff Goldblum's character Ian Malcolm):

"They were so busy trying to figure out if they could do it, they never stopped to think if they should".

While cloning dinosaurs and talking about the Chicago Fire are two completely different topics, I felt the quote was fitting.

Sometimes it seems as if teams like NY or LA sign a DP just to sign them, despite how they fit in the squad. I have even called for us to bring in a big name soon to show we can play ball with NY/LA. But, sometimes we should all be careful of what we ask for. A bad clubhouse can really take a team down in any sport, and sometimes that is easy to overlook when a big name DP is potentially there for the taking. The examples of failed experiments are ripe for picking.

Cubs fans remember (even though they have tried to forget) the cancer that was Milton Bradley. There was a huge outcry from crashing out of the playoffs yet again after the 2008 season and it was decided that the missing piece was a left-handed bat with power. While Milton Bradley's ability was there, he had numerous altercations in his baseball career and never learned from them. In his short time with the Cubs, he compiled a laundry list of offenses to add to his vast repertoire. The team crashed and Bradley alienated himself from teammates, coaches, fans and citizens of Chicago. It got so bad that then-GM Jim Hendry actually suspended Milton Bradley for the last part of the season (and by many reports the players gave a standing ovation to Hendry when he announced the suspension to the team). Needless to say, Bradley was done in Chicago, and took his "it's always everybody else's fault" type of attitude with him elsewhere. I don't need to tell you what a scenario can do like that to a locker room.

Getting back to MLS, these examples have occurred more frequently than some might think. Look at the Red Bulls for example. On paper last year, there is no reason that they shouldn't have been able to compete for every trophy. However, games aren't played on paper. I think a team like NY tries to make the splashy signing without always thinking of whether they should. Rafael Marquez was suppose to put the Red Bulls over the top but he has struggled on the field and only blamed teammates last year. Grant Wahl highlighted these problems last September:

"I'm focusing on really performance at my highest level. That doesn't mean that the whole back line can perform at that same level, so that's a problem," Márquez told reporters through an interpreter, adding: "I think this is a team game, and unfortunately there isn't an equal level between my teammates and I." In other words: It's not me, it's them.

It was also Wahl that brought out the LA Galaxy's issues with David Beckham in his book 'The Beckham Experiment'. While their recent MLS Cup triumph was like a honeymoon, things were not always so smooth. Beckham came to the league making a ridiculous amount compared to everyone else. Yes, he still was a very good midfielder with a penchant for killer crosses and free kick goals. He was also making $6.5M dollars while other teammates were making under $13,000 a year or holding second jobs. I don't care how well you play, there is going to be some awkwardness when one player makes about 540 times more than other players. There's no way a player can be 540 times better than someone else. It's even worse when the highly compenstated player isn't performing.

We can certainly correlate this to our very own, beloved Chicago Fire. While designated player Cuauhtemoc Blanco was a brilliant master stroke of a signing, Nery Castillo in 2010 was a complete bust. The loudest crowd response Castillo brought to Toyota Park were when fireworks were shot off when he was subbed on for his first appearance (an infamous moment in Fire fandom). Castillo still got his million dollar payday. Players like that who aren't contributing but still raking in the dough create an unhappy atmosphere that is not conducive to confidence, winning, having fun, and all the other things that are ingredients to a successful team core.

Even when David Beckham was playing decently for the Galaxy later on, other factors got in the way in his relationship with Landon Donovan. Wahl says the Galaxy were disobeying a golden rule of sports by paying Beckham, a player often on or below Donovan's level, significantly more money than Donovan. What happens if we bring in Didier Drogba for $8M and then Dominic Oduro matches him for goals while Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo assist Oduro and Drogba just as often. That's not even considering the positive contributions of Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa, Cory Gibbs, Jalil Anibaba, Sean Johnson, and well, you get the point. This is a very deep team with fairly even salaries despite the pedigrees some of the players brought in with them.

Ives Galarcep of Soccer by Ives answered a Fire related question in one of his live Q&A sessions the other day and it helps illustrate the point I am making. Ives said the Fire are "one superstar" away from contending. Everyone has their own opinion and I respect that, but to me it smacked of saying "the Fire need to have a big named DP to have a chance". I find that answer ironic considering the fact that no MLS team had won the MLS Cup with a DP on their roster before this year and it took this year's team five years of having Beckham and Donovan play together to make it happen. People get too worked up thinking their team absolutely has to have a big name with a big salary to be a legit contender. Fans should have a finer appreciation for a front office that can successfully find an impact player on the field and in the locker room.

Let's be honest, Frank should be commended for the team he has built since taking over first as an interim coach last year, and now as full time coach. He uncovered great deals like Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari, who both contributed a lot early last season. With the signings of Pardo and Grazzini, as well as the trade for Oduro (who absolutely destroyed the competition last year), Frank quietly made some of the best acquisitions of any team in MLS. Pardo provided a great defensive presence in midfield, and Grazzini was the sorely needed linking midfielder to our forwards up top. The only issue was lack of depth behind Grazzini, which hurt us in the U.S. Open Cup Final but seems to have been addressed very admirably this offseason.

The point here is that the signings weren't big, flashy names. Frank scouted and met the players to determine who would fit in the locker room and who wouldn't. They also had to fit into the kind of system that Frank was building. The end result was a team that went on a tear and concluded the 2011 season with a 7-2-2 record good enough for second best finish in club history. The group seemed more harmonious and on the same page. I really got the sense everyone was pulling in the same direction and had everyone else's back. And guess what Fire fans? All that is back this year and more. And Frank did it without 'names'. Sometimes the best teams are ones that work together the best, not the teams with the most talent.

I am sure the Fire will sign DP's in the future. Who knows, maybe even later this year, maybe tomorrow. Some will succeed for various reasons, and some will fail. The keys to building a truly elite team that fights at the top year after year is not always clear but money is not full proof. There is no special recipe because there are so many intangibles and so many different situations from team to team. One big part is the guy building the team, as well as the coach that is entrusted to overseeing all of these professional athletes working together. In Chicago, that man is combined into Frank Klopas. While many others help him, Frank is the face of the front office team. And, judging by his work last season and this offseason, he and his front office team are really on to something.

The refreshing thing to me as a Fire fan is that Frank knows the difference of signing a DP just for the sake of it, and signing a DP because it makes the team better. And that decision making ability goes a LONG WAY in building a successful team year after year. The most successful franchises find a way to bring in the right mix of players to get the job done. Whether it's a starter that has a major fingerprint on every game, or a role player that may not even see playing time every week, good managers/coaches just have an innate knack for bringing the right ingredients together. While Frank's book certainly has just started being written, I think we should all be pretty thankfully that he looks out for the Fire organization first and foremost before he worries about who can sell the most jerseys. I really think the Fire are going to achieve great things in 2012, and one thing is for sure: it's going to be a hell of a ride.