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Fire Mon Dec 08 2014

With MLS Season Over, Chicago Fire Begin Rebuilding

Chicago FireIt has been said here before but it bears repeating that 2015 is going to be a big year for Major League Soccer. It will see the addition of new teams in Orlando and New York City, as well as attention-getting designated player signings like David Villa, Frank Lampard and Kaka. Quite simply the profile of the league will have never been higher. With such exposure comes a chance for teams around the league to cement their reputations, for this surely is the time for a host of new first impressions. Much like the pains a student entering high school will take to strategically position themselves anew, so too will the Fire have the ability to reframe themselves in the eyes of new fans.

Even before the postseason ended with this past Sunday's MLS Cup final, the Fire had made some moves which showed a desire to significantly rebuild the team. Shortly after the end of the regular season the team chose to re-sign only six players -- of a total 17 -- who were out of contract. Among the 11 who found themselves potentially on the outs included team mainstays Gonzalo Segares and Bakary Soumare, though the team is open to negotiating new contracts after a new collective bargaining agreement is established. Both of last season's loanees, Benji Joya and Grant Ward, saw their loan options declined as well.

The mindset in Bridgeview seems to be on cleaning house, proactively rebuilding rosters by first discarding personnel deemed non-essential. These moves are most likely motivated by the lackluster 2014 season, with the Fire having missed the postseason again for the second year in a row. To put a very fine point on it, 2014 marked the fourth time in five years that the team failed to breathe the rarified air of the playoffs. This heralds a period of stagnation unseen since the team's inception. The Men In Red had a prolific knack for making the playoffs, beginning with their inaugural season in 1998 -- when they won the MLS Cup -- and running until 2009, having only missed qualifying in 2004 in between.

One should surely be happy for such a positive overall team record, but present woes have a greater impact than past successes. As the popularity of the sport has been on the rise in the wake of the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, the Fire has had the hardest time remaining relevant within its league. The worrying impact being that those coming new to the sport will likely look elsewhere for a team with a better on-field product, whether domestic or abroad.

Coming off his first season with the team, head coach Frank Yallop has expressed a desire to build a faster, more attack-minded team for 2015. This would be a welcome change as this past year the Fire scored 41 goals, their fewest since the 2010 campaign, when the schedule was four games shorter. In the first step to make good on the commitment to signing a proven goalscorer the team unveiled new designated player Kennedy Igboananike last week. At 25 years old Igboananike, a Nigerian who also holds Swedish citizenship, is a relatively young player to be signed as a DP to an MLS side. Add to that the fact that Yallop has indicated he's been scouting Igboananike for around three years and it begins to sound like he has the potential to have a real effect on the Fire. Playing the role of striker, Igboananike has netted some impressive goals over his eight years in Sweden, and hopefully his best years are still ahead in Chicago. While he isn't yet a big name like Jermaine Jones or the oft-rumored but most likely not to be seen Erick "Cubo" Torres, his signing is a start, showing management is active in its search to build a better squad.

This Monday the Fire are expected to announce the acquisition of Michael Stephens, who comes to the team from Stabaek in Norway, where he had been playing under former Fire head coach Bob Bradley. Stephens, an American midfielder who played one season in Norway after leaving the LA Galaxy, came up in the ranks of the Chicago Fire Premier development league and thus is returning home for the first time. Last week also saw the team pick up Trinidad and Tobago National Team defender Joevin Jones, a solid defender who will be looked upon to fill out a backline currently being rebuilt from seed.

Finally, this Wednesday will see another edition of the MLS Expansion Draft, that dispersal mechanism that rears its head whenever new teams enter the league. The expansion draft allows next year's two coming teams, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, to flesh out their rosters with players by picking from a select cohort of players on current team rosters. The Fire, as well as all other teams, will be able to protect a total of 11 players on their rosters, regardless of current contract situation. Thankfully, homegrown players such as Chris Ritter and Harry Shipp are not eligible for selection through the draft. In the end no more than two players can be selected from a single team, though it may be less than that since there will be a total of 10 selections for each team, adding up to 20 players from potentially 18 teams.

 
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