Time is now for troubled, talented Fire
With expiring contracts and the MLS salary cap, the Fire must move
In Major League Soccer, where the salary cap is king, the concept of the rich getting richer doesn't necessarily apply in the long term. The better the team you build, the more likely it will need to be taken apart after a few years as contracts expire and players go looking for higher salaries.
Denis Hamlett's contract (among others) is up after this season, but he isn't so sure there will be a mass offseason exodus in Chicago.
It has happened before, with the dismantling of the original D.C. United team, which eventually could no longer afford to keep its squad together after three titles in four seasons (from 1996 to 1999). The same applied to the original Chicago Fire team, which won an MLS Cup and multiple U.S. Open Cups before the likes of DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra and Ante Razov eventually departed for greener pastures.
The Houston Dynamo, winner of two of the past three MLS Cups and a team poised to add another title, will certainly feel the pinch as Ricardo Clark prepares to leave MLS and Stuart Holden begins to draw interest from abroad. But no team is confronted with a bigger roster upheaval this offseason than the Chicago Fire, which boast one of the league's deepest rosters but may have only this year to make the most of all that talent.
Just how much of a roster shake-up might the Fire be preparing for? Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Brian McBride, Chris Rolfe, Gonzalo Segares and Marco Pappa all may break from the team in 2010. Throw in the facts that MLS Best XI defender Bakary Soumare already is gone and head coach Denis Hamlett's contract is up after this season, and you have a Fire team that could be in serious rebuilding mode this winter.
"This is how the league is set up, there's no getting around it," Hamlett said. "Your hands are tied to a certain extent because of the salary cap and how much you can pay certain guys. Guys do well, and at the same time they want to be rewarded financially.
"That's the process, and at the end of this season we'll sit down with our brain trust and make the right decisions on which guys to protect and who won't be back."
The two biggest names among the Fire standouts who may not return are Blanco and McBride. Blanco, who will be able to leave after the current season, has been the subject of a steady stream of reports suggesting he'll return to Mexico after this season to finish his career. Sources tell ESPN there are doubts about whether McBride will be brought back because of salary concerns.
McBride, who has only just begun training again after having shoulder surgery, is 37 and could make a return to Europe if he and the Fire can't come to terms on a new contract this winter.
"I can only tell you how I feel, and I feel great," McBride told Chicagonow.com. "I enjoy being around the staff and the guys and I love playing in Chicago, but we'll see what happens. I mean, I'm not trying to skirt around the answer; I love being here and I feel like I can play more, but that decision will probably be made somewhere in December."
While Hamlett acknowledges that there will be decisions to be made in the offseason, he isn't so sure that the mass exodus of talent some are expecting in Chicago will happen.
"I know people talk about [Blanco] and McBride not coming back, but you speak to those guys and they might want to play another year [in Chicago]," Hamlett said. "We won't talk about it until it's time to talk about it, which is at the end of the season when you talk to guys and see how they feel.
"Right now Brandon Prideaux is the only player who has said he's done [in Chicago]."
Still, the Fire will almost certainly lose Rolfe and Segares, who are both out of contract after the season. And keeping Pappa will require a serious financial commitment in order to turn his loan from CD Municipal into a transfer. Soumare was the first Chicago standout to leave, having just completed a transfer to French club Boulogne earlier this week.
The very injuries and national team call-ups that have caused the Fire to struggle more than expected could wind up helping Chicago deal with a potential exodus of talent. With young players such as Dasan Robinson, Austin Washington, Mike Banner and Stefan Dimitrov getting opportunities to play and impress in the absence of more established regulars, Hamlett has found an even deeper bench than it initially was believed the Fire had.
That was made very clear last Sunday when Chicago rallied back from two goals down to defeat the Colorado Rapids 3-2 on goals from Banner and Robinson, who scored the game winner. The victory not only gave the Fire a precious three points and helped ease the team's recent woes at home (the Fire were 3-3-4 at home before the win), it also helped instill confidence in a group that has had a rough summer, dealing with injuries and other team issues (including a locker-room scuffle between Hamlett and Soumare that helped lead to Soumare's eventual transfer).
"That was the kind of game that we could have easily gotten down and just settled for the loss, but these guys stuck together and rallied and got the win," Hamlett said. "It's something we've done as a group.
"We've battled through all of it and it's made us a stronger team."
The Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo remain the popular picks among MLS Cup contenders, but the Fire could pose a serious challenge to both. Chicago has managed to post the third-best record in MLS even with the various injuries to key players such as McBride, Conde and Segares. With McBride on the comeback trail and defenders Segares and Conde working their way back to health, Chicago could be as big a championship threat as any in MLS. And the likelihood that this year could be the best chance for the Fire for some time just might serve as extra motivation for the club to win its first league title since its inaugural season in 1998.
"We want to win the championship and that's our focus," Hamlett said. "We aren't worried about next year or what's going to happen in the offseason. I think we have the team to do it, and I don't think anybody is going to overlook us."
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.