A look at the big questions surrounding the Chicago Fire for the 2006 season and looking ahead to the 2007 campaign:
WHAT DO THE FIRE NEED TO DO TO REACH THE MLS CUP FINAL IN '07?
Despite starting the season with a marathon road trip, the Chicago Fire only just fell short of reaching the Eastern Conference Championship in 2006, falling to the New England Revolution in penalty kicks in the Conference Semifinal Series.
A late-season run propelled the club into a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference and their results and style both seemed to improve down the stretch. With a year under their belts at their new home of Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., the club appears to be primed for a successful season in 2007.
"We have a lot of pieces in place, but because we fell short, we still would say we're one or two players away from maybe putting us over the top," said Fire head coach Dave Sarachan.
Expect to see additions at the forward position during the offseason, as Nate Jaqua has departed for Toronto FC after being selected in the expansion draft. Chicago was already preparing for that loss, though, as the Oregon native had openly discussed his desire to try his hand in Europe while rumors have also linked him to both Los Angeles teams, the Galaxy and Chivas USA.
"We're going to look to try to replace Nate," said Sarachan.
WHAT WAS THE TEAM'S BEST MOMENT IN '06?
It was an historic season in Chicago as Toyota Park, the league's fourth soccer-specific stadium, opened during the summer. The fanfare surrounding the first matches at the new ground were certainly memorable, but even that doesn't compete with the capturing of a major trophy.
The club won its fourth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title on Sept. 27, topping the Galaxy 3-1 in front of a boisterous Toyota Park crowd. That result at the tail end of the Fire's amazing late-season run, in which they put together a 12-4-1 record in all competitions following the All-Star break.
The Fire hoped a taste of success would provide them with the push needed to repeat the feat in MLS Cup 2006. Ultimately, they fell short of that, but with the winning of the Dewar Cup, the club can still take something positive out of the campaign.
"That makes your season feel like at least you got something out of it because every year you go into preseason talking about winning two trophies and that's the Open Cup and the MLS Cup. We actually achieved one of them," said defender C.J. Brown. "I think that is a good honor for the club, but that made me feel that we had a chance to get into the MLS Cup, too, so it kind of made things even worse at the end where you're playing good, you're doing well, you're winning things. That means you should be in the (MLS Cup) final and we didn't do ourselves justice."
WHO MADE THE MOST IMPROVEMENT OVER THE COURSE OF THE SEASON?
Sarachan praised a number of his young players after solid seasons in 2006, including Brian Plotkin, Calen Carr and Chad Barrett. But the player who showed the greatest improvement was undoubtedly winger Justin Mapp.
In his fifth season in the league, the 22-year-old put together his most complete and consistent campaign. His confident gallops down the flanks were a major component in the Chicago Fire attack and his ability on set pieces proved to be a constant threat to opposing defenses. It was his free kick that gave the Fire a 1-0 win against the Revolution in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series.
"Justin Mapp emerged this year as more of a complete player for us. He had a fairly important impact on us being a dangerous team going forward," said Sarachan. "He's still a young guy. I think he's the youngest to ever get to 100 games, but he's still young and he's still learning and I think this year he kind of made that leap a little bit as a guy who now welcomes that responsibility."
WHAT RESERVES ARE MOST READY TO MOVE INTO THE TEAM?
With injuries and a busy schedule, the Chicago Fire were forced to use a very large chunk of their bench during the 2006 season. Several youngsters showed immense promise, but the standout was probably Dasan Robinson. The University of Dayton product worked his way into the starting lineup and was clearly one of the best rookies in the league throughout the season.
Carr made 22 appearances, mostly as a substitute, and showed flashes of why the club picked him with their first selection (10th overall) in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. He scored a goal and added an assist in league action and found the back of the net three times to help the Fire win the U.S. Open Cup title.
WHAT AREA OF THE TEAM NEEDS THE MOST IMPROVEMENT?
The departure of Jaqua leaves two major holes to be plugged, as the forward also put in some time on the right side of midfield during the 2006 season.
The Fire have been searching for a right-sided flank player dating all the way back to DaMarcus Beasley's sale in 2004. John Thorrington's injury troubles have limited him to just 10 appearances in two seasons, including only 11 minutes of action in 2006. The club needs a mirror image of Mapp to better balance the attack and they also need someone to join Andy Herron up top.
"I think we're pretty solid throughout our team, starting in goal and working our way forward. Obviously, the wide midfield spot would be one area that we still want to get a little bit better on the right side," said Sarachan. "You never turn down the opportunity to try to bring in players that can get you goals, even though we feel we're fortunate that we have a pretty good roster of forwards."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.