This past season wasn’t as bad as 2010 for the Chicago Fire, but it wasn’t exactly a banner year, either. Chicago couldn’t overcome their slow start and ended up missing the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second straight year.
But for all the tumult to start the season – which led to the May firing of former head coach Carlos de los Cobos and saw the Fire languish near the bottom of the table until early August – things actually started looking up.
Thanks to some key midseason reinforcements and some great chemistry, the team put together a dramatic run in the final third of the season. They advanced to a sixth US Open Cup final appearance in October and nearly snuck into the postseason, finishing three points behind New York for the 10th and final playoff berth.
Best Moment of the Year
It wasn’t so much a moment, but the build-up to the US Open Cup final at Seattle was the best part of the Fire’s year. Chicago used their Open Cup success as a crutch during the lower points of the regular season. Seeing them earn their first final appearance since 2006 was special – even if they didn’t end up walking away with the trophy.
Worst Moment of the Year
The end of the season was still months away, but the Fire’s 4-2 defeat at last-place Vancouver on Aug. 7 sure felt like a deathblow. The Fire were completely listless in that match, giving up a goal in the first minute and conceding again in the 24th, 48th and 72nd minutes to fall into last place in the Eastern Conference and drop 10 points out of the playoffs with just 12 games remaining.
Defender Jalil Anibaba’s first professional goal is already a career highlight. The versatile rookie scored a stunner in the Fire’s 2-1 USOC win over Colorado on March 30, finishing a 40-yarder through fan-induced fog to give Chicago the victory at Bradley University’s Shea Stadium.
The strike also prompted one of the better goal calls of the season, with moonlighting play-by-play man Brendan Hannan earning 15 minutes of fame with his unusual – and hilarious – “These pretzels are making me thirsty!” call.
Sean Johnson had several fantastic saves this season, but none was better than his one-handed stop against FC Dallas’ Jackson on Oct. 12. The second-year ‘keeper made a miraculous save on the Brazilian, reaching back with his right hand to stop Jackson’s close range shot and keep the game – which the Fire went on to lose – scoreless.
Dominic Oduro arrived in Chicago in March after being run out of Houston and lit up the net for the Fire, leading the team with 12 goals and ending Chicago’s seven-season streak without a double-digit scorer. The Ghanaian striker was particularly good down the stretch, scoring seven goals in his final 13 games to help with the Fire’s playoff push.
Sebastián Grazzini was fantastic in his 11 games with the Fire, scoring five goals and providing four assists after signing with Chicago in mid-July. Along with fellow newcomer Pável Pardo – who the Argentine midfielder barely beats out for this award – the 30-year-old Grazzini opened things up for the forwards and provided a creative presence that was sorely lacking all season at Toyota Park.
1. Re-sign Pardo: The Mexican World Cup veteran signed with the Fire in late-July and was a revelation at holding midfielder, distributing very well, playing solid defense and contributing a goal and five assists in his 13 games. He also was a great presence in the locker room, becoming vice captain before the end of the season. The 36-year-old was key to Chicago’s late-season success and absolutely needs to be back in a Fire uniform next season.
2. Find another forward: Fire head coach Frank Klopas has gone on the record as saying that he’d like to add a forward to play with Oduro next season. A bigger, target-type striker would be a good fit alongside the smaller, speedy Oduro, who would benefit from having a strike partner who could hold up the ball and play him through.
3. Get a jersey sponsor: Club president Julian Posada has been hard at work trying to find a jersey sponsor ever since last season. His efforts haven’t paid off yet, but with owner Andrew Hauptman recently telling reporters that the team has made “significant progress” on the issue, a shirt deal might not be that far away.