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Fire Sun Feb 02 2014

Soccer in Chicago: Catching Up With The Narrative

Thumbnail image for GB blackhawks icon.pngTo truly love sports is to love narrative above all else. There are other factors at play, to be sure, from the social to the statistical and beyond, but the syrupy essence of the addiction at its core is the story. Without this there is no rivalry, no comeback, no underdog. Each and every sporting contest can be viewed by a party unaware of the narrative, this much is true -- just look to the Cubs bleachers in the summertime -- but to actively consume it, and be consumed by it, is the thrill of the pursuit.

Scarcely is that more true than with the sport of soccer. It is famous for its simplicity -- the ball is round, the game lasts 90 minutes, as the saying goes -- because of which there is much room for the narrative to ferment, creating drama, intrigue, and anticipation. This is that most potent of brews which, when drunk, does not satisfy the drinker and only serves to make one thirst for more. And with this being a World Cup year, the time is nigh for a bender.

Luckily for you, the narrative is thick in Chicago this year as the Fire prepare for their 17th season in Major League Soccer. For those new or lapsed fans, allow me to recap: The close of the 2013 season saw the firing of head coach and club legend Frank Klopas, a move which appeared premature, with the Fire only narrowly missing a playoff berth and dramatically improving over their 2012 season performance. Owner Andrew Hauptmann had a clear plan though, bringing aboard MLS veteran coach Frank Yallop just a day after Klopas' departure. Yallop, formerly of the San Jose Earthquakes, brings with him over a decade's worth of MLS coaching experience and one MLS Cup win in 2003.

Following Yallop, the Fire added to their ranks by hiring Brian Bliss, who was interim head coach last season for Fire rivals the Columbus Crew, as technical director. Bliss is the team's second ever technical director, a spot previously held by Klopas himself prior to his ascension into the role of head coach. Bliss' hiring marks the first new direction for the club since 2008 when Klopas became the first technical director, hopefully signalling a sea change in player development and signings. Former Fire player and Ring of Fire inductee CJ Brown is finally back home from his stint at Real Salt Lake, joining the team as Assistant Coach. Clint Mathis fills the final Assistant Coach spot.

There is a new model for teams currently taking hold in MLS. With the league having been in place for the better part of two decades, organizations have had time to develop and grow their individual academy systems, producing homegrown players indoctrinated in that club's brand of play. One can recognize a number of teams based solely on its style, whether it be the hashtag ethos of San Jose's "never say die" Goonies, Sporting Kansas City's high-pressure attacking style, or Portland Timbers' Porterball, with its emphasis on tiki-taka passing and movement.

The Fire have largely felt like a patchwork of solid, if unspectacular, players, just hoping to eke out a win, without a recognizable style. That was, however, before last season's surprise pickup of a Mike Magee. Magee came in a trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy for Robbie Rogers last May and quickly became the nucleus of the squad, not only putting up career best goal numbers, but also providing a much-needed sense of focus and drive. Magee went on to win the league MVP, despite the Fire missing out on the playoffs, a feat which one doesn't see often in professional sports. As long as Magee can stay close to his 2013 form he could be on pace to win the league's Golden Boot, an award he only lost to Vancouver's Camilo Sanvezzo in the final game of the regular season. With Camilo having since departed for Liga MX side Queretaro, Magee's chances in 2014 are looking better and better.

Magee has had his career year even further validated by earning his first call-up to the senior national team ahead of the World Cup. Sadly his debut was cut short due to an ill-timed bout of food poisoning this last weekend. Whether there is space for him on the final 23-man roster for June remains to be seen, but he is now on coach Jurgen Klinsmann's radar and hopefully he will have more opportunities to impress as tune-ups ahead of the World Cup continue.

Also on the bubble for the trip to Brazil is goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who has been a fairly regular presence at national team training camps, though he currently sits about 4th on the depth chart for US goalkeepers, and only 3 are selected for the World Cup. In the end, though, the conversation comes down to whether it is worth the pride associated with a club player competing on the world's biggest stage while the MLS regular season continues on without them.

While in this offseason other MLS sides, such as Toronto FC, have made waves signing big names like Jermaine Defoe from Tottenham, and Michael Bradley from AS Roma, the Fire have not made any similar international moves. They have instead relied on their own academy output in signing pair of homegrown players, Harrison Shipp, a standout Forward on the Notre Dame team that won the NCAA College Cup in 2013, and Chris Ritter, a Midfielder from Northwestern. Both look to be solid acquisitions, with the Shipp signing a coup in particular, as he was ranked as the number one college player for 2013 by Top Drawer Soccer. By comparison Andre Blake, this year's number one pick at the MLS Superdraft, currently sits at number four on the same list. The Fire's lone Superdraft pick-up was UC Irvine Defender Marco Franco, who will slot in nicely in a backline position recently vacated by the trade of Jalil Anibaba to Seattle for Central Defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni. In the early days of MLS it had taken some time for college players to get accustomed to the pace of first team play; the skills shown by players like Austin Berry, who landed 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year in his first season, would seem to suggest otherwise.

The many threads of this season's narrative are already presenting themselves, and first kick is still five weeks away. The Fire will be looking for a strong start to 2014, given that four more goals on the season would have put them in the playoffs. Winning games and scoring goals are all well and good, but to make an impact in the postseason, should they find themselves there come November, the formation of a team identity will make all the difference. Either way, they'll have a big year, with the World Cup kicking off in June, EPL side Tottenham Hotspur coming to town in July, and as always, there will be the twisting narrative that is the sport of soccer.

The 2014 Fire season officially kicks off March 9th at Chivas USA, and the home opener will be March 23rd against the New York Red Bulls. Tickets available at the official team website today.

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