OXNARD, Calif. – The theme of the Chicago Fire’s preseason training camp has been “cohesion.”
Frank Klopas and company have added several pieces – Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo and Uruguayan striker Federico Puppo being the two most prominent – but for the most part, the team that made a late playoff push in 2011 is the one that will take the field in 2012.
And while the first XI looked rusty in Saturday afternoon’s 1-0 win over Chivas USA, the second XI played like 2011 had never ended.
“That group that we played in the second half, we’re always together, whether it’s against the first team [or in a friendly],” said goal-scorer Dan Paladini, who got the game-winner after picking off a Heath Pearce pass in the 49th minute and slotting a left-footed shot inside the right post. “We all know each other, we compete against the first team every day, and we’re just basically fighting for time.”
The fight went well for Paladini and friends, particularly in a midfield Chivas had controlled over the first 45 minutes. With Paladini at defensive midfield, Corben Bone at the top of the diamond and the flanks manned by Michael Videira and Victor Pineda, the Fire were able to wrest control away and play like, well, like a team that’s been together for longer than just a few weeks of preseason.
“I told the guys, ‘This is our chance,’" Paladini explained. "[Chivas] left their first team on, and it’s just every opportunity you get, you’re gonna take it."
That ethos is why head coach Frank Klopas was careful about tinkering too much in the offseason. Talking to MLSsoccer.com on Friday night, he stressed the importance of togetherness, and the ability to put on a player – or groups of players – who are familiar and comfortable with the system and each other.
“Like anything, it takes time,” Klopas explained. “When you’re in this position it’s all about results. People judge you on that. Last year we almost revamped the whole team – almost  new players ... that chemistry really does take time to develop.
“In time, you could see that things fell together, and we had a strong finish to the season.”
After Saturday’s contest, Klopas will have more confirmation that keeping faith with the group that made a late playoff push in 2011 was the right choice. Even though he lamented the lack of sharpness from the first team, there were a double handful of moments during which the Fire looked a lot like the team that surged up the table last autumn.
Even with that, though, he’s got a reminder for his bunch.
“We can look at  and say we felt good about it,” Klopas cautioned. “But in the end, we didn’t, because we didn’t make the playoffs. It was a good end to the season, but we still have a long way to go.”
And this year’s Chicago side will do so together.