Like every other team in the league, the Chicago Fire have an uncertain offseason ahead of them. While each club faces its own dilemmas regarding their 2005 roster, the Fire might have the most intriguing.
Head coach Dave Sarachan has the unenviable task of having to decide between Zach Thornton, one of the best goalkeepers in MLS history, and Henry Ring, Thornton's longtime understudy who stepped between the posts at Soldier Field in 2004 and proved he belongs as an MLS starter. With Thornton returning to the Fire in the summer after a stint at Portugal's Benfica, the goalkeeping subplot of the Fire's offseason was born.
Ring has been candid about the potential conflict.
"I don't see (the Fire) keeping both of us through the beginning of next season. I think that one or the other of us will be gone," he said. "I don't really plan on competing with him for a position.
"I would love to be the starter for the Chicago Fire. The fans and the people here have become home to me. Basically, that's a lot of stuff I really can't control."
The first order of business for Ring is to be re-signed by the league and the team. The Tennessee native said the team has told him they would like to re-sign him, adding that the first few weeks of the offseason would likely be taken up with discussions about a new contract.
"Hopefully [Fire general manager] Peter Wilt and the Fire and the league will take care of me for this season," he said. "I've done the best I can, and I've definitely paid my dues sitting the bench making minimum. Now this is four years making the minimum. Hopefully these guys will take care of me and I can just take care of my job."
Ring said he feels he has done enough to, at the very least, make himself valuable on the trade market. The long-time backup posted a 1.43 goals against average and made 128 saves in his first season as a starter on the way to winning team MVP honors and expressed pride in overcoming some early-season nerves to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team and help keep his team in the East playoff race.
Unfortunately, Ring wasn't able to carry the team all the way into the postseason, in large part due to things he couldn't control, such as his opposition's curious knack for scoring amazing goals.
"It's the nature of the position," he said. "I don't know how many times I got Goal of the Week scored against me, but it was several times, and as soon as they go in, you just pick the ball out of the net."
In fact, Ring had eight Goals of the Week scored against him during the course of the season, by far the most of any 'keeper in the league. Regardless, his teammates credit him with helping keep the Fire competitive until the final weekend of the season.
"He had a great year," said defender Jim Curtin. "He did everything you could ask for and then a little bit more."
Fire captain Chris Armas said, "Henry Ring had a breakout year, showing the league and the country that he's a solid goalkeeper."
Sarachan's decision is not made any easier by Ring's outstanding season. The second-year coach let out a nervous laugh when asked if he looked forward to having to choose between a young goalkeeper who just had a season that put him on the map and a veteran who has won four trophies with the Fire and is among the best/most successful 'keepers in league history.
"Decisions have to be made," Sarachan said. "When you're a head coach in this league, you've got to live and die by decisions. That is a decision we need to come to, along with a lot of other areas within our team.
"Both a guy like Zach and Henry now have proven that they're capable of being starters in this league. It's always a good dilemma when you have quality. That's what I would say about those two. It's, again, going to be a difficult process, but we'll all get through it."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.