Former President George W. Bush once said, "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again." In his own disorganized way President Bush stumbled onto the very sentiment many Fire fans are feeling this off season. Sure, it looks like some of the moves the Fire are making might improve the team - but after the dissatisfying 2014 campaign, are Fire fans ready to believe once again?
After enduring the season of draws many of the Fire faithful seem to carry themselves like shell shocked soldiers. All of the news on the Fire really doesn't penetrate the fan psyche and seems like white noise in the background. Fans are left feeling reactionary to each move, as if each was further evidence of Hauptman's cheapskate-ness while remaining unable to evaluate each move on its individual merit.
Around the holidays last year I wrote how I was cautiously optimistic that the Fire were on the right course under the leadership of then new head coach Frank Yallop. At that time I even said, "As I write this, I am ready to remove 'cautiously' from that statement". Naturally, I don't want to foolishly make the same error and blindly trust the changes that are being made once again. We all saw how my prediction worked out for me in 2014.
We, the fan base, also do not want to be overly critical of the club simply because of our disdain for how the 2014 season went. It is easy to fall into the opposite trap and be overly critical of the club's decisions based off of bad feelings from the previous season's results. So let's have a look at the Fire's off season so far with a critical eye.
Practically the first thing the Fire did this off season was lock up right back and fan favorite Lovel Palmer to another year. I can't say enough good things about this move as Palmer brings a winning attitude to the club both on and off the pitch. Palmer knows what it means to play for the badge and the Fire will need him to rebuild the confidence of the fan base.
Next, the Fire shook the roster loose and cut many more players than was expected indicating that a total roster shake up was in the works. Even though fan favorites such as Gonzalo Segares were slashed, the total shake up was needed to restore fan confidence that mediocrity is not acceptable. Editor Sean Spence gives a comprehensive assessment of the moves here. In general, the Fire needed to make space for what is shaping up to be an eventful off season.
The next move for the Fire was a big one and one that polarized the Chicago Fire community. Nigerian national and Swedish striker Kennedy Igboananike was signed to a designated player contract. Fan sentiment for this deal seemed to vary from cautiously optimistic that he might be a good addition if the Fire acquire other legitimate attacking option to this move being evidence that the Fire will only ever sign second rate designated players. I lean towards this was a solid moderate risk DP signing that could prove a success given the other changes the Fire have made since.
Following the Igboananike deal the Fire swiftly shored up the left wingback position bringing in 23-year-old Trinidadian Joevin Jones. Gonzalo Segares had clearly lost a step in the left back position and the Fire got younger and more athletic with this move. Jones has the potential to play further up the field if needed and provides a fresh look to the attack as well as the defense being that when playing for W Connection, Jones scored 28 goals in 55 league appearances. It is a welcome addition to the club to have a player capable of moving up the wing from the back to support the attack.
The Fire kept the moves rolling in by bringing in Chicagoland native and former LA Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens from Staebek in the Tippeligaen. Stephens has a track record in the MLS, which is something many of these other acquisitions lack, and also hails from the region and the Fire academy. Stephen's has played with Mike Magee before and the two players have a rapport both on and off the pitch. He can play in the central midfield and provide a bit of cover and competition to Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson. Another solid move by the Fire.
Next the Fire resigned Alex (head scratcher) and sold Juan Luis Anangonó (round of applause going off in my head). Being free of JLA's DP contract in itself is something to be excited about as it opens another slot that the Fire can now use on the first team instead of wasting it on loan. Alex provides an uninspiring piece to add depth to the midfield.
Next the Fire finally began the process of replacing the center back position after cutting Bakary Soumare (and losing him in the 2nd phase of the of the Re-Entry Draft). On December 16th, the Fire announced the signing of defender Eric Gehrig. The Fire had acquired Gehrig's rights of first refusal by sending Orlando City their 2nd round pick in MLS Superdraft. Gehrig is a solid defender, another native to Chicago, and a noted leader who has played both in the center and on the right for both the Colorado Rapids and the Columbus Crew. The Fire are likely not done at shoring up the central defense but Gehrig provides a good start.
Finally the Fire most recently rocked the community by bringing in a 2nd designated player in the form of long-rumored Ghanaian striker David Accam. Accam can easily be described as a rising star and the Fire have gotten him on the upswing. If Accam has success, we could quickly see him transferred to many interested clubs in Europe so Accam not only provides pace and clinical striking but also represents an investment for the club. Accam played for Hartpury College in England, Swedish third-division side Ostersund and earned his first international cap for Ghana just prior to the 2014 World Cup.
The acquisition of Accam makes the move for Igboananike seem like pure genius. The thought of seeing two young forwards with pace attacking in unison for the Fire in 2015 gives a lot of hope to skeptical fans. When paired with some of the pieces the Fire already have such as Harry Shipp's unique style of attack and Mike Magee's ability to poach goals the Fire might have something real to work with in the final third this upcoming season.
When taken all together these moves demonstrate significant progress for the Fire following the stagnation of last season. Sure, the Fire still need to figure out something for the defensive midfield such as a true pivot that can distribute the ball to the speedsters up field. They will also need to acquire some depth for the back line. However, the Fire have brought is some serious potential that should not be shrugged off as more of the same.
Sure these players that the Fire have acquired are not the elusive "Keane like money" we were all promised, but maybe this is all we can attract anyway until the Fire once again presents itself as a championship caliber club. Even if Hauptman wasn't notoriously frugal and the Fire had all the money in the world to bring in DP talent, who is going to want to play for the Fire until they demonstrate they have a product on the field worth playing for? It's quite possible the Fire need to make modest improvements in the market to demonstrate the clubs value and improve attendance before players and agents look at the Fire as a viable option. We may be forced to endure a rebuilding period, but we can also enjoy it a bit if the rebuilding is smart.
Still, many fans are not ready to believe in this Fire club without a big move. The very rational augment is that attendance is never going to improve until a legitimate established designated player (think Robbie Keane or Thierry Henry) that can attract fans to the club. The moves the Fire have made this off-season generate little in name recognition in the world community, so many fans are quick to guess that they will turn out poorly. Also, the argument recalls the Fire's recent history of bringing in low-level DPs who have turned out to be abject failures - the distinguished Chicago careers of Rafael Robayo, Frederico Puppo and Juan Luis Anangonó being instructive here - and assumes these current moves are more of the same. The fear is that both Accam and Igboananike will be flops and then where are the Fire?
In a rational evaluation of the moves the Chicago Fire have made so far this off season, the general trend seems to show the Fire are moving in the right direction with the acquisitions they are making. Optimism may not be on the rise with all of the Fire faithful but there is reason to once again believe that the Fire might be competitive within the next two seasons.
Even though "Hauptman out" seems likely to continue to spill from many of our lips like an F-bomb from the mouth of a person with Tourette's, perhaps it's time to look at some of these moves a bit more thoughtfully and separated from our emotions. Or maybe - since I don't hail from Texas or Tennessee - I am just ready to get fooled again?