So today I'm thinking about the Fire, and I'm stumped. How do you fix a good team and make them great?
"We're going in another direction."
"But I had seven goals and eleven assists."
"Yeah, but you got no neck."
"It's a fair cop, but society's to blame."
Do you put up with Conde's moping because his youth and talent are worth it? Or do you try to upgrade, knowing how difficult it is to find someone who can play AND whose eyes are that close together? (Wait... youth, what the hell am I talking about? He's 26 - he just acts like he's 19.)
Do you assume that Logan Pause, despite last night, is ready to take the next step to MLS elite? Guy did mark Landon Donovan out of the game a couple of times.
Do you assume that King and Nyarko are going to develop? Where do you put in Pappa? Is it realistic to hope that he's good for a whole season?
Come to that, is it realistic to hope Busch has put his injury woes behind him forever?
Basically, how many changes do you make?
Tough questions. I'll tell you what isn't the answer, though. Let's allow Nick Firchau of the Sun-Times, and some guy with a hard head, to stand in for everyone connected with the Fire for a quick sec.
See, the MLSnet I get on my browser says the Fire were all of three games over .500 in the regular season, all of six points ahead of the defiantly mediocre Salt Lake Royals, all of seven points ahead of that team in New Jersey they took nine off of, and just as close to last place as first in the East. And what I'm reading on the boards was how the Fire had the best, deepest, most talented roster in the league. I can understand people being dazzled by the presence of McBride and Blanco, but no one is willing to admit they might be a little past their prime?
I would have been amazed to read all this before last night. Sigi, in the sort of coaching move that tends to get one fired when it doesn't work even when one is in first place, said "Nah, we're good" thirteen minutes before the end credits by taking out Schelotto. Gotta rest him for the final, you know.
And it did work. The Crew didn't fear the deadliest free kick in the continent, and the best target man in American history. I have no reason to doubt Bill when he says that GBS' replacement Ekpo knows or cares little about defense, but it sure seemed like ten minutes of regulation and three minutes of stoppage time was a Fire shooting gallery.
...except the parts where the Crew defenders were calmly passing to each other, or Rogers was strolling to the Fire corner.
Contrary to Chico Marx and the Eagles, at some point you have to believe your lying eyes.
The other thing that surprised me was some of the hatred for Denis Hamlett. Among other crimes, he was misusing Rolfe and unjustly keeping Frankowski on the bench. Okay, these guys see the Fire every day, and I just see them on the tube. But man, careful what you wish for.
More to the point, Sigi Schmid has all but guaranteed Hamlett's job security. It used to be that keeping the same coach year after year was a sign of Rapids-esque blinkered denial, instead of wise and patient stewardship. Now, if a team that made a badly thought-out panic move to replace a coach ended up winning MLS Cup this year, then Hamlett would be in trouble, but...oh, yeah.
If people are convinced that Hamlett is the problem - and they make a darned good case over there on the Fire boards - then prepare to write off 2009. Unless the hope is something like sixth place and a Hamlett firing by July 4, then roaring back into contention the way the Fire did in 2007 when Osorio replaced Sarachan. Hey, it could happen. All you need is another Blanco to join in midsummer. DC United has plenty of hardware won that way.
Speaking of Osorio, talk about a possible nightmare MLS Cup for Fire fans. The Crew, or JCO. Or Jason Kreis, who I doubt is held in particularly high regard in Chicagoland. This is going to be a long offseason for the Fire.
But it'll be a longer season still in 2009, if they don't recognize their limitations and try to correct them. Lock down Soumare to a long-term deal, keep Brandon Prideaux as a de facto assistant (I'm a big fan of veterans as de facto assistants), move Conde to...well, the Galaxy would love him, but what the hell could they give? Dallas, maybe, except Brimstone Cups would be even more excruciating. Chivas USA has some talent to spare, and a real need to free Bornstein from central defense - that's probably the best bet.
Then comes the hard decision on what to do about guys like Dasan Robinson and Justin Mapp. Keep one? Move both? Keep both? The wrong deal can send them down to DC United territory, the right deal can win a double. No deal will probably mean a rerun of this year.
Your call, Frank Klopas - the lady, the tiger, or no played-out metaphor at all?
For a different view, from someone who does know more about the Fire, and does think that Chicago had the best talent in the league, check it out here.