Controversy, Personnel Shortage Hit U.S Ahead of Crucial WC Qualifiers

USbraintrust

Friday night will be edge-of-your-seat-stuff.

The fallout continues to descend in the wake of Brian Straus’s thunderclap of an article in the Sporting News.

Using mostly anonymous sources connected to the U.S. national team, the story claims that there’s widespread dissatisfaction among U.S. players with coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his staff, and his methods. 

Go read the article if you haven’t, then come back here as we take a look at four issues ahead of tomorrow night’s huge game against Costa Rica (10:00 ET, ESPN).

• Where there’s smoke …

Klinsmann has provoked this sort of reaction at every stop of his brief coaching career. It was common knowledge that Joachim Low handled the X’s and O’s when he was assistant to Klinsmann during Germany’s run to third place in the 2006 World Cup. At Bayern Munich, where Klinsmann failed to last a full season as coach, he was saddled with the same “overtraining, undercoaching” tag U.S. players describe in Straus’s article.

Munich defender Philipp Lahm famously claimed in his autobiography that “the experiment with Klinsmann was a failure. We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn’t care much for tactical stuff.”

• Anonymity is wack 

Straus’s brief “sources were offered anonymity in exchange for their anecdotes, observations and opinions” explanation sort of slipped by unquestioned when the story first hit. But it’s well worth scrolling back to it for another look. Why do they need anonymity? Why can’t they attach their name to their opinions and complaints, or perhaps more importantly, why can’t they bring those directly to the coaches or teammates involved, and work it out internally? Further, what do they hope to accomplish by bringing their complaints to the media? Click here for an interesting take on those questions, or consider midfielder Michael Bradley’s opinion:

“It’s shameful, and it’s embarrassing. I think for every guy who has ever played on a team, you give everything you have … and on every team in the world, not every guy is going to be happy. There’s going to be guys who go back to their room and talk with their roommate about things they wish were different…. that’s normal.

“…But you cross a line when you take those thoughts and you take your disappointments outside of the team, outside of the inner circle.”

• Endgame scenarios

Returning to the question of what the anonymous complainers hope to accomplish, well, the answer, it’s safe to assume, is that they want Klinsmann out—sooner rather than later. In fact, Straus’s article closes with the suggestion that Friday night’s game is do-or-die for the German boss—win or auf Wiedersehen.

But how likely is that? We agree that if the coach truly isn’t working out—and if the U.S. fails to get three points either tonight or next Tuesday against Mexico—a change should be made now, while there’s still time to right the ship and qualify. But that depends on USSF head Sunil Gulati and his willingness to admit he made a mistake in hiring Klinsmann. Not only would he have to swallow his pride, but Gulati would also have to have a quick trigger finger, taking decisive action, now, to address the situation. That’s a double tall order.

There’s also the question of who to bring in. The top choice would be LA’s Bruce Arena, followed by Dom Kinnear of Houston. But both of those men are under contract, and fairly comfortable, with their clubs at the moment. There’s no guarantee they’d want to give up their current contentment for an uphill battle with the USMNT.

At the other extreme, the U.S. brass could simply stick with their man and his program. This would create a situation comparable to the one Lahm had in mind in his book when he wrote, ”All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage.” But in this case the damage, to the U.S.’s standing in the world, its progress as a soccer nation, and player confidence, could be pretty severe.

What about a middle path, you say? Well, the disgruntled numpties in the U.S. camp surely have gotten Gulati’s attention. He knows they’re not happy, and if results continue to reflect that, he’ll have to address it. What if he brought in, say, a Dominic Kinnear to be one of Klinsmann’s assistants? Someone who understands the U.S. players’ perspective and who has their respect. It’s possible but again, you’d be asking a guy with a plum position to trade it in for a … less plum position. And there’s the question of people to fit this particular bill. Kinnear is just about the only one. Ben Olsen or Sigi Schmid also come to mind, or possibly Tab Ramos, but it’s not a long list.

All in all, we’d bet that some approximation of the middle path is what unfolds. Of course it depends on….

• How distracted will the team be on Friday—and who the hell is going to start?

While Carlos Bocanegra, Bradley, and Herculez Gomez have all issued some damage-control, ship-righting statements (Gomez called the controversy “cute” compared to the media scrutiny he experiences in Mexico; he also threw in a “teddy bears” and said the U.S. team will be a “better team for it”), the Sporting News story will definitely have an effect on tomorrow night’s game. Whether that effect is damaging or galvanizing remains to be seen.

It’s interesting to witness Bradley come out with his bold statement, and to see Dempsey named captain for the next two games (in the absence of Bocanegra, Tim Howard, and Landon Donovan), if only because it would appear to scratch their names off the list of 11 players who griped to Straus in the story.

The question remains as to whether their leadership will prevail and get the rest of the group to properly focus on the task at hand. Because anything less than three points tomorrow and this controversy only deepens.

Speaking of tomorrow, when you look at the U.S. roster, no clear-cut starting XI presents itself.

The backline is especially confounding. There are only two pure outside backs, Tony Beltran and Justin Morrow, and neither one has ever played in a World Cup qualifier before.

Some observers have suggested that Maurice Edu could be shifted to center back, allowing Geoff Cameron to move to right back, where he plays for Stoke City. That’s all well and good, but (apart from the fact that Cameron has never played RB for the U.S.) it would leave you with a center back pairing that’s never played together before, be it Clarence Goodson and Edu or Omar Gonzalez and Edu.

If Klinsmann sticks with the central pairing he used against Honduras—Cameron and Gonzalez—which might make the most sense, then he has to go with the two newbies on the outside.

The situation is less murky in midfield, but there’s still a good chance that we could see players out of position (either Eddie Johnson or Sacha Kljestan on the left), and a frustrating lack of speed and width. DaMarcus Beasley is a possible antidote to this latter element, but given Klinsmann’s preference for ball-winning central midfielders, Run DMB may not make the field.

There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into this game, but one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be interesting to watch.

MLS Year 18 Kicks Off Tomorrow

 

The shortest offseason in league history ends tonight, and the 18th Major League Soccer season kicks off tomorrow, with six games scattered across North America. (Gotta love Black Flag being used in the above promo. Won’t hear that in the NFL … or NBA or MLB.)

The Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City get the ball rolling, literally and figuratively, at 4:00 at PPL Park in Chester, PA (MLS Live), and then Canadian rivals Vancouver and Toronto FC do battle at BC Place, starting at 6:30 ET (TSN, MLS Live).

In prime time, Houston will host DC United in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference championship (8:00 pm, NBCSN), revamped sides FC Dallas and Colorado will meet in Frisco, Texas (8:30, MLS Live), title contenders Seattle will host second-year Montreal (10:30, MLS Live), and new-era Chivas USA welcomes a talented Columbus side to the Home Depot Center (10:30, MLS Live).

On Sunday, New York travels to Portland for a meeting between two teams with new head coaches and loads of new players (12 for New York; 13 for Portland, to be exact). That one’s on ESPN2 at 7:30.

Earlier that day, the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy will host another revamped team, Chicago (5:00, UniMas), and on Sunday night, San Jose and Real Salt Lake will close out opening weekend with a 10:00 pm match at Buck Shaw Stadium (MLS Live).

••••

For the first time since 2006, there are no new teams this season, and for the first time since 2007, there is no David Beckham.

But there are plenty of interesting teams and intriguing storylines for 2013. Here four questions to start us off:

1. How will Los Angeles fare without Beckham, currently starring for Paris St. Germain, and Landon Donovan, currently headed upriver in Cambodia?

Answer: Just fine. They have arguably the league’s best player in Robbie Keane, and they’ll have Omar Gonzalez from the get-go this year, playing in front of new keeper Carlo Cudicini. Also: Juninho, Mike Magee, and rising offensive star Jose Villareal. Donovan will be back on the field before the end of April and the team will be poised for another MLS Cup run.

2. Will Mexico-centric Chivas USA and their iconoclastic new coach, Chelis, top last year’s win total of seven?

Taking a cue from its parent club, C.D. Guadalajara, which fields exclusively Mexican players, Chivas USA let go of Shalrie Joseph, Peter Vagenas, Danny Califf, Ben Zemanski, Nick LaBrocca, Casey Townsend, James Riley, and Ryan Smith, getting pennies on the dollar for several of them.

Then, as if suddenly realizing they had a threadbare roster and the regular season was bearing down upon them, they made a flurry of moves this past week, bringing in 37-year-old Mexican center back Joaquin Velazquez, 31-year-old Peruvian left back Walter Vilchez, and young Mexican-American midfielders Josue Soto, 24, and Emilio Orozco, 20.

It’s going to be an interesting season for the Galaxy’s co-tenants—sure to be filled to the brim with salty soundbites from Chelis—and we say no, they will not eclipse last season’s win total.

3. They’ve been an entertaining contender the past two seasons, so is this the year Sporting Kansas City breaks through and wins MLS Cup?

They lost midfield engine Roger Espinoza (now shining for Wigan in the Premier League) and they’ll play the first part of the season (at least) without striker Kei Kamara (already legendary in his Norwich City loan spell!), but KC added productive Argentine striker Claudio Bieler and U.S. playmaker Benny Feilhaber, and they have a supposedly fit and raring to go Bobby Convey back in the fold.

This is the year they win the East—with their customary style and flair—and reach MLS Cup.

4. Will Portland reward their world-class fans with a playoff berth this season?

The product on the field hasn’t quite matched the spirit in the stands in Portland’s two seasons as an MLS franchise, and this year they’ve made drastic changes to try to remedy that.

Former University of Akron and U.S. U-23 coach Caleb Porter took the reins this offseason and has set about remaking the team, adding some of his former college players (Michael Nanchoff, Ben Zemanski) to the one already on Portland’s roster (Darlington Nagbe), and acquiring much hyped Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri, ex-Manchester United stalwart Mikael Silvestre, and former West Ham striker Frederic Piquionne.

Before that burst of acquisitions, Porter and the Timbers’ front office nabbed solid midfielder Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake and Jamaican international striker Ryan Johnson from Toronto FC.

They might be the most improved team in the league, and yes, we’re calling a postseason berth for them.

The Hexagonal Is Here: Possible U.S. Lineups vs Honduras

USMNT

It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Jurgen Klinsmann.

When the German legend took over as coach of the U.S. national team in late July 2011, there was much talk about how he would overhaul U.S. soccer from top to bottom, create a consistent style of play for the national team program, instill a different soccer culture on these shores, and take the senior team to the next level.

No one could reasonably expect him to have accomplished all of the above in roughly 18 months on the job, but it’s fair to say that his work in progress has, at this stage, with the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying set to kick off tomorrow, still too much of a work-in-progress feel about it.

His team has had its moments (they played some beautiful soccer en route to a 5-1 rout of Scotland last May), its gotten some big results (beating Italy in Italy, and Mexico at Azteca) and it had a surprisingly good record in 2012 (9-2-3).

But at no time in the Klinsmann era has the U.S. produced a cohesive, quality, 90-minute performance. Not once. They’ve looked like a troupe in rehearsal throughout his tenure.

And the problem with that is that the show opens tomorrow.

The team has landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the most dangerous city in the world, according to the U.S. Stated Department), where it will take on the vastly improved home side on Wednesday in the opening game of the Hexagonal, as the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is known. (Kickoff is at 4:00 p.m. ET, and BeIN Sports has the broadcast.)

This round features six teams (hence the name; the other four are Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama), who will play each other twice (home and away) in a series of games running from now until October 15.

At the end of the round, the top three sides will advance to the World Cup, while the fourth-place finishers will play a team from Oceania in a two-game playoff for a shot to go to Brazil as well.

It’s a rugged, unforgiving stretch of games in venues that, like San Pedro Sula, are quite a bit less than hospitable. The margin for error—the degree to which you can veer from the ‘win-at-home, draw-on-the-road’ formula for qualification—is miniscule, and the competition has never been tighter. All six teams can play, at a level unprecedented for the region, and all six have loads of experienced guys.

Here’s Klinsmann’s roster for tomorrow’s game (with club, World Cup qualifying appearances, and goals—shutouts for keepers—in parentheses):

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa – 5/3 SO), Tim Howard (Everton – 22/9 SO), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire – 0/0)

DEFENDERS (9): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City – 0/0), Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander – 31/5), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City – 5/0), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana – 0/0), Timmy Chandler (Nuremberg – 0/0), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders – 0/0), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy – 0/0), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim – 3/0), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg – 3/0)

MIDFIELDERS (8): Michael Bradley (Roma – 19/5), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo – 0/0), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor – 9/0), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04 – 5/0), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht – 12/0), Jose Torres (Tigres – 9/0), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim – 4/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City – 3/0)

FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar – 17/6), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur – 26/10), Herculez Gomez (Santos – 6/2), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders – 11/10)

There are no major surprises here, but there are some mild ones in the exclusions of Kyle Beckerman, a player Klinsmann used quite a bit in 2012, Benny Feilhaber, who looked good against Canada last week and would provide some welcome skill in the midfield, and Terrence Boyd, a big athletic forward who could bring a late spark and threat in the Honduras box.

But this is a solid group. Here are three ways Klinsmann could line them up:

 1. ————————–Howard

——Chandler—–Bocanegra—Cameron—F. Johnson

——————-Bradley——-Jones——–

Zusi–                                                                        E. Johnson

———————-Dempsey

——————————Altidore

This lineup gives you defensive starch in front of the back four (and reliable possession play there from Bradley), a decent crosser of the ball in Zusi, and EJ’s speed on the left flank. Downside is EJ’s defensive liability in that spot. And the fact that neither he nor Zusi is a true winger.

2.  ————————–Howard

——Chandler—–Bocanegra—Cameron—F. Johnson

—————————–Edu

——Bradley                                                Jones

————————Dempsey

——————–Altidore——Gomez

This option would really clog up the midfield and go a long way toward playing for a low-scoring draw. It’s also totally devoid of wingers, and overloaded with defensive-minded central midfielders (even though MB plays box-to-box for Roma)—an element that has produced some ugly displays in the Klinsmann era.

3. ————————–Howard

——Chandler—–Bocanegra—Cameron—F. Johnson

——————-Bradley——-Williams——–

Zusi–                                                                        Dempsey

—————————Kljestan

———————-Altidore

Here you have the skillful Kljestan playing underneath Altidore with the goal of boosting U.S. possession and creativity in attack. He played in the Champions League this past season, so he won’t be overawed by this occasion (as, say, a Torres seems to be in every big game.) The experienced Dempsey mans the troubled left midfield spot (MIA: Landon Donovan, Brek Shea), and Danny Williams wins balls in midfield, hopefully freeing up Bradley to pick spots to roam forward.

Which ever lineup Klinsmann rolls out, we’re predicting a 1-1 draw.

Greece v Germany Preview

This match-up looks like the most lopsided pairing in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, and it may turn out to be just that, but there are some interesting subplots to Friday’s game that could influence the outcome.

First is the economic situation involving the two nations, in which debt-ridden Greece has been bailed out, and taken to task, by Germany and its chancellor, Andrea Merkel.

“Bring us Merkel,” shouted one Greek headline after the national side advanced to the quarters. And they’re going to get her: the chancellor moved some meetings around and will attend the match.

As for the second part of that headline—“You will never get Greece out of the Euro”—well, that seems like a bit of whistling past the graveyard. Greece will put 10 men behind the ball on Friday, hope and pray they don’t give up a goal, and try to nick one at the other end. It’s a strategy that could work—and has worked before—but we wouldn’t put too much money on it beating this German team, which looks like the best side in the tournament.

On the other hand, the most famous time Greece’s negative football won the day was back in 2004, when,  led by German coach Otto Rehhagel, they won the Euros.

Rehhagel led Greece’s national team from 2001 to 2010 and also qualified them for the 2010 World Cup. The past 11 years have been by far their most successful era—and the foundations for it were built by a German.

But Greece has never beaten Germany in eight meetings (five losses, three ties), and we don’t see that changing on Friday … No, wait—scratch that: Our Man at the Valley just pointed out that Greece did win the very first meeting between the two nations. Highlights here:

Apparently, things haven’t changed much since then: “As you’d expect, it’s a much more defensive lineup” for the Greeks. Haha. Some other things we enjoyed from that clip:

• Beckenbauer’s inclusion in the German midfield.

• “Aristotle, very much the man in form.”

• “Nietzsche’s third booking in four games.”

• “The Germans are disputing it. Hegel is arguing that reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside.”

Back in the modern era, here are some match facts ahead of Friday, none of them boding very well for Greece:

• Germany has won its last 14 competitive games—a record for the German federation, which is saying something.

• Germany has scored in each of its last 19 games.

• None of Greece’s last 10 Euro goals have arrived before minute No. 42.

• Greece has attempted the fewest shots (17) of all eight quarterfinalists.

• Germany has advanced to the semis five of the last six times it has reached the quarterfinals of a major tournament.

The game kicks off at 2:45 on ESPN.

BPFL: Gameweek 26, League Cup First Round

Co-commissioner Our Man at the Valley is back from the slopes with your BPFL weekly wrap, covering the first round of the League Cup, the top performer, and the unluckiest loser:

 

The first round of the Backpost League Cup threw up only a couple of mild surprises. FluffyBunnies and YourAdHere both punched above their weight class and knocked out Escobar’sRevenge and DHDPhotography, respectively.

Here are the results in full:

Bertie Wooster FC  32-43  Useful Shot, That

ChaiceBrosMakeAllLea  14-42 tranungkite

Taeguk Warriors   35-62  Joakimovo stado

Sleeping Giant   41-51  Gunters

Tango   49-43  The Rihno’s

RayDomPsychicAdvisor   51-39  Team Fortress 4

The Losers  38-54  Abes Army

Stemmy    38-48   Chelsea Chris

DHD Photography   30-45  YourAdHere

Escobar’s Revenge    34-40  Fluffy Bunnies

League Cup Second Round Draw Former Charlton manager AlanCurbishley took some time out from saying no to the head position at Wolves to conduct the draw for the second round, with matches taking place this coming week, Gameweek 27.

The marquee matchup pits the top two teams in our league, coloradokeeper and Dynasty of FC Hammer. The draw is as follows:

Gunters v EPL Quakes

Fluffy Bunnies v LildWeaver

Kimo’s v Ahmad Haziq Hashim

Disgruntled Numpties v YourAdHere

Herk City v Joakimovo Stado

Old27M v Mudheads

Socr_maniac v Serbian zbornaja

thissiteblows@pmike v Average

Dynasty of FC Hammer v Coloradokeeper

Abe’s Army v tranungkite

United SUV v I am Liverpool

Afrikan Letsatsi v Chelsea Chris

RayDomPsychicAdvisor v Bryan 04 Leverkusen

Useful Shot, That v Giorgio Chinaglia

The Xerex’s Team v Tango

Sunshine FC v El Nino

Back in the league, the Coloradokeeper’s lead at the top  grew to a certainly insurmountable eight points as the Rocky Mountain boys beat slumping Giorgio Chinaglia 52-46, and second-place Dynasty of FC Hammer, playing without a goalkeeper, lost to Mudheads 47-46.

Performance of the Week Our top team this week was Joakimovo Stado, who netted 62 points after a 4-point  deduction for making an extra transfer. He, too, played without a keeper (Michael Vorm’s illness left many of us needing backup), but picked up 24 points from his Arsenal midfield duo of Alex Song and Theo Walcott.

Unlucky Loser  The award was shared this week between the aforementioned Giorgio Chinaglia and Dynastyof FC Hammer.

With Wednesday’s international fixtures out of the way (congrats U.S.! good try, England!), we’re back to the regularly scheduled EPL programming. The next Gameweek starts on Saturday.

Thanks OMATV. As always, don’t forget to set your lineups.

Rising in the East: New York

Given the team’s unsteady history, there should probably be a question mark instead of a colon in the header above. But the Red Bulls did add some intriguing signings to their already talented roster this offseason, and they, like most of the rest of the Eastern Conference, believe they have the players to contend for it all in 2012.

And we mean literally contend for it all: Here’s coach Hans Backe on a recent conference call with reporters, as relayed by MLSsoccer.com: “I say we should go for it all: the Open Cup, the [Supporters’] Shield, the MLS Cup. We have a very good squad this year.”

And so they do. But they had a very talented squad last year, and barely scraped their way into the playoffs. They’ve had some talented teams peppered through their 16-year history, and yet the franchise doesn’t have a single trophy to show for it. Not one. (Unless you count the 2011 ‘Emirates Cup,’ which you probably shouldn’t.)

The problem with New York (well, the main one) is that the team has never had an identity. From the get-go in 1996, they’ve lacked personality, continuity, and stability. The team has had 12 coaches in 16 years, and cycled through a phone book’s worth of players.

The Backe era, now entering its third season, hasn’t been much different. Last season, on the all-too-appropriate date of April 1 (considering what followed), the team traded promising midfielder Tony Tchani, defender Danleigh Borman, and a draft pick to acquire Toronto FC attacker Dwayne De Rosario.

Thirteen games later, though, New York shipped De Rosario to DC United straight-up for midfielder Dax McCarty—and De Ro promptly went on a tear, finishing the season with 16 goals, 12 assists, and the league MVP award.

The upshot was that they’d cut loose two useful bench players, a draft pick, and the MVP of the league, for … Dax McCarty. It was not an efficient piece of front-office maneuvering, and it reminded fans of the bad old days they’d hoped had been left behind when Backe and GM Erik Soler took over after the 2009 season.

This offseason, though, has produced reasons for cautious (very cautious) optimism among those shell-shocked fans: The team lost central defender Tim Ream, an unheralded 2010 draft pick who played his way onto the U.S. national team, but they replaced him with Markus Holgersson, a 26-year-old fresh from winning a treble in his native Sweden and earning his first international call-up.

The 6-3 Holgersson will most likely partner with 6-2 Wilman Conde, a 29-year-old Colombian who was an MLS Best XI selection with Chicago in 2009.

If Conde is 80% the player he was in 2009, and if Holgersson is a genuine international-caliber centerback, then New York will have upgraded its backline significantly. The height of the two new defenders should also help the team get better in the air on set pieces—a glaring weakness last season, both offensively and defensively.

In midfield, the team added Icelandic U-21 player Victor Palsson, whose signing was announced today. He’ll add depth in the center of the park, where the team relied too heavily on Teemu Tainio last season.

The most curious acquisition was that of former Portland and FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper. It’s hard to imagine him and Thierry Henry on the field together, as their styles seem too similar to mesh well. But if the team is going after three trophies, as Backe says they are, they’ll need depth—and if Cooper, who’s still only 27, can recapture something like his 2008 form, when he scored 18 goals in 30 games for Dallas, he’ll be a solid pickup.

The Red Bulls also have five players trialing with them in preseason at the moment, and Backe told the MLS website that he would like to sign them all if he can fit them under the salary cap.

Now if they can just solve their goalkeeping problem….

Rising In the East: Chicago

As we said yesterday, the 2012 edition of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference appears poised to put a dent in the Western Conference’s recent dominance (last three MLS champs, five of last six MLS Cup finalists).

There are a number of teams in the East with lofty goals and the ability to achieve them this year. We’re not saying the Western dominance will be reversed, but don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable shift in conference power this year.

Today, we look at the Chicago Fire.

Chicago closed last season as one of the hottest teams in the league, going 7-2-1 down the stretch. But as torrid as their closing run was, it couldn’t make up for their frigid start: The Fire won just once in their first 13 games under coach Carlos de los Cobos. He was dismissed in late May, and after new coach Frank Klopas acquired midfielders Pavel Pardo (148 caps for Mexico) and Sebastian Grazzini (an Argentine who had five goals in 11 appearances last year), the Fire became a very tough out.

They finished 9-9-16, with those 16 ties being both an MLS record (tied—appropriately—with New York) and an indication of what might have been.

This season, with Pardo and Grazzini in the fold at the start, Chicago is aiming high. “We feel we can reach the playoffs,” Klopas told MLSsoccer.com in January. “The [US] Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, [those are] things we think we can win. It’s great that we’re setting those goals early on.”

They’ll have their two influential midfielders for the entire season this year, but the Fire did not stand pat during the offseason. They acquired experienced Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo, 27, from Millonarios, where he was captain and helped lead the club to the 2011 Copa Colombia title.

They picked up goalkeeper Jay Nolly, formerly of Vancouver, to spell Sean Johnson, and they added depth up top with Zimbabwean speedster Kheli Dube. He’ll start on the bench behind new signing Federico Puppo, a 25-year-old Uruguayan who has two goals in three appearances for his nation’s U-22 side, and should make for some interesting announcing sequences when he combines with Fire midfielder Marco Pappa this season.

The Fire also locked in promising striker Orr Barouch on a permanent transfer after he’d been on loan from Tigres of the Mexican top flight, and they picked up some interesting prospects in the SuperDraft, including potential Name Hall of Famers Lucky Mkosana (Dartmouth) and Hunter Jumper (UVA).

Yes, things are looking up at Toyota Park, and if the team stays healthy, it could be looking down at much of the Eastern Conference table come October.

Tomorrow: New York.