BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The Chicago Fire feel like they just might have it figured out.
Though they didn’t qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season – Chicago were officially eliminated when New York clinched the 10th and final postseason spot on Thursday night – the Fire now think that they have a solid core of players, a good coach in charge and a winning formula in place.
Saturday night’s season-ending 3-2 victory over the Columbus Crew in front of a sold-out Toyota Park crowd only reinforced those beliefs.
WATCH HIGHLIGHTS: Chicago 3, Columbus 2
“Obviously we’re disappointed not to be in the playoffs because that was our goal from the beginning,” Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said after the match. “But I feel very good at this point of the season with where we are as a team. There’s a lot to build from this.”
There certainly is. Saturday’s win over the Crew punctuated a very solid final third of the season for Chicago, giving them a 7-2-3 record in their final 12 games. The team has difference makers in midfielders Sebastián Grazzini and Pável Pardo, a good scorer in forward Dominic Oduro, a solid backline anchored by veteran center back Cory Gibbs and a promising young keeper in Sean Johnson.
They also have a coach that they believe in, even if he still has that pesky interim label attached to his title. Klopas has the firm support of the locker room, with no fewer than four players telling MLSsoccer.com over the last week that they’d like to see the former Fire striker back in charge next year.
“Obviously, Frank is on an interim basis, but I think everyone here in this locker room would like to see him back,” defender Dan Gargan said on Saturday. “We feel really comfortable with him.”
The Fire also have a good team dynamic. The group works hard for each other, and, as Gargan noted, picks each other up and holds one another accountable.
“It feels like a team,” Gargan said. “There are certain years that you go through and locker rooms that you’re in where it doesn’t click like you want it to. But this feels good. Every day at training, in games after games, it just feels right.”
All of that means that this offseason should be much calmer than last, when the Fire turned over more than half of their roster. It also means that Chicago is very confident heading into 2012, with multiple players saying that the sky is the limit for the suddenly hot club.
“There’s certainly a different feeling to the end of this season,” Gargan said. “I think the obvious thing is that we are definitely one of the best team in the league right now. But the reality is that we’re not in the playoffs and I think that that combination both stings and it also has everybody wishing that tomorrow was the start of next season. It’s a frustrating feeling but at the same time I think it’s an exciting one.”
“I don’t really think there’s anything holding us back,” he added. “We have every right to be excited about next year.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org