Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 17-11-6 (57 points); 46 GF / 41 GA (+5 GD)
Chicago Fire players and coaches were resolute during the 2012 preseason that they had the potential to return to the playoffs after two years on the outside looking in.
That prediction rang true, but they didn't realize what players would help them reach that goal.
The Fire began the season with the entire starting lineup back from a team that won seven of its last 10 games in 2011. But pieces steadily came and went throughout the season, with the return of Chris Rolfe, the departure of creative midfieler Sebastián Grazzini, the emergence of Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, and the arrival of two Designated Players highlighting a season that featured five changes to the starting lineup.
Through turmoil, the Fire maintained consistency, and were in position to take first place in the Eastern Conference in September. After a 1-3-1 finish to the regular season, Chicago lost to Houston in the Knockout Round, but the Fire labeled the season a success after achieving their preseason goal.
Best Moment of the Year
Rolfe joined the team in April, but Fire fans were forced to wait for his return to the lineup after he rolled his ankle during his second practice.
As rumblings of Grazzini's imminent departure began to manifest, Rolfe came on in the 61st minute against the Red Bulls on June 17 to make his home re-debut. With an 81st-minute goal, he began to show Fire fans that there was hope beyond "Seba."
The Argentine left later that month, but the Fire had their best stretch of the season with Rolfe taking over the second-striker role for Grazzini, winning seven of eight games in August and September. Rolfe scored eight goals and was named Team MVP.
Worst Moment of the Year
Aside from their playoff loss to Houston, the Fire locker room was never lower in 2012 than after Chicago's 1-1 draw with D.C. United on October 27. The tie put the Fire into the Knockout Round, where they lost to Houston in front of a sparse home crowd.
The Fire's slide at the end of the season halted one of the best regular season stretches in club history. The losses to D.C. and Houston put the finishing touches on the collapse.
Marco Pappa left behind plenty of memorable highlights when he transferred to SC Heerenveen of the Dutch Eredivisie in August. His olimpico against Seattle on was one of his finest.
Pappa didn't start the 2-1 loss after coming home from Guatemala's friendly against Paraguay just two days prior, but he came on in the 61st minute and breathed life in a struggling Fire side. He couldn't bring Chicago level, but he made his mark on the game with one of the more impressive finishes of his five-year MLS career.
Sean Johnson had a number of highlight-reel saves, but none was better than his 59th-minute stop against San Jose in a 1-1 draw, when he swiped away an Alan Gordon header that appeared destined for the lower corner. Johnson's 10 saves almost gave the Fire three points against the eventual Supporters' Shield winners, but a 98th-minute goal sent them home with one point. Without Johnson's performance, they surely would have likely gone home empty-handed.
When Grazzini left, fans and pundits feared the Fire would lose their offensive mojo. Rolfe filled that spot despite a different skill set, and Chicago had their best stretch of the season.
Rolfe led the team with eight goals and combined nicely with newly acquired Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald toward the end of the season.
After Cory Gibbs suffered an eventual career-ending meniscus tear in April, Arne Friedrich stepped in to bolster the back line alongside Berry. The German was one of the most technically gifted players on the team and a leader for a defensive unit that included three rookies and a second-year pro.
The World Cup veteran enjoyed his time in Chicago so much that he put off retirement for another year.
1. Continuity: This offseason, the Fire's best move might be to avoid moving too many pieces. During 2012, the Fire added piece after piece, including Friedrich and MacDonald, both of whom could benefit from a full preseason. Improvement from those two may give the Fire enough of an added boost to take the next step.
2. Depth in the back: For the second year in a row, the Fire may have a center back on their shopping after Gibbs announced his retirement at the end of the season. While Jalil Anibaba (right) slides back and forth from right to center back, his backup on the right, Dan Gargan, is in a tenuous contract situation, so the Fire may have a hole to fill.
3. A consistent goalscorer: The Fire don't exactly know what they have in MacDonald despite his DP status. The Dutch forward is technically gifted, but he's scored more than 10 goals in a season just once in his career. Dominic Oduro scored 12 goals in a breakout season two years ago, but the Ghanaian was far from consistent this season. He wasn't happy with his bench role at the end of the season. While the Fire front office may not bring one in in the offseason, a proven goalscorer would be welcome.