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Who will save the Fire in 2003?

In this playful piece, we pose a question or make a statement about something in soccer that will be opined about, agreed and disagreed on, by YOU, the reader. No more talking heads giving safe, politically correct answers. Those days are over. Instead, we’ve opened the floor to everyone out there in Cyberland to throw in their two cents.

For the February issue, we asked you this:
Having lost perhaps their four most dynamic players in the off-season, will the Chicago Fire be able to claw their way into the MLS playoffs this year (and how)?

Hopefully DaMarcus Beasley and his Fire mates aren’t Center Circle subscribers, as collectively you don’t give the them much of a chance in Year One of the Sarachan era.

Here’s a smattering of your responses, broken down into the Realists, the Pessimists, and finally, the Unconditional Optimists:

The Realists:
“Darn good question.  As a Barnburner myself, it's one I've been asking for a while.  And the answer really lies with coaching that I can't project. For all practical purposes, the team isn't much different than it was last year.  Nowak, Wolff and Hristo just weren't healthy often enough to make a difference last year.  So basically it's Faria for Kovalenko.  And more importantly, Sarachan for Bradley. If Sarachan can keep Gray and Capano developing, then the Fire will be about the same as last year: solid back line, thin midfield and forwards. They'll probably still squeak into the playoffs, but won't make any noise there. There's also the real chance that Beasley will leave for Europe, and that every player on the roster will tear an ACL playing on the artificial turf.”
- Donald Adamek / 27 / Ann Arbor, Mich.

“As always, Chicago will be in the hunt, and will win its share of games, but I don't figure them to get past the first round of the playoffs.  With the loss of his supporting cast, Ante will not have the opportunities to put up big numbers, even if he stays healthy.  I hope he has a good season, but don't see him being strong enough to carry or lead the team like they need.  I also hope Zach is back in top form, but that would only put him even with Tim Howard, Tony Meola, Matt Reis and Kevin Hartman.  In other words, a good goalie is obviously critical to a strong season, but he will not be the one to make or break the Fire's playoff hopes.  Sorry to say, but anyone counting on DaMarcus to fill the void created by the exodus of Chicago's past leaders is in for a long wait.  Sure he has great speed and quickness, but his attacking skills are pretty one-dimensional and raw.  He may be a game-maker type of player in two or three years, but definitely not this year.  The team, particularly the younger players, will be energized by the new coach phenomenon we see so often, but it won't be enough, particularly since Chicago has already been to the top of all the MLS and Open Cup ladders.  It is always harder to repeat than to win for the first time.”
- Keith M. McPherson / 39 / Little Rock, Ark.

“As much as I like this franchise, their new coach, and the fans, 2003 is going to be a huge struggle for the Fire.  The heart and soul of that team was Nowak and Stoitchkov and their absence now leaves a void I don't think can be replaced in one season. Players like Bocanegra, Thornton, Armas will keep the defense solid, but too many young midfielders (talented, mind you) like Mapp and Gray still need experience and may not be successful creating and linking up with the forwards.  I look for DB (DaMarcus Beasley) to have a big year, but he is most effective on the wing of course and I'm excited to see how Futagaki performs at this level.  All in all, I predict they will struggle at best and likely won't make the playoffs.  Too many other teams like D.C. United, NY/NJ, and maybe even New England have improved, and this only makes matters worse for the new-look Fire.”
- Kirk Shearer / 32 / Jackson, Miss.

The Pessimists:
“The 2003 Chicago Fire will be extinguished, and won't come near the playoffs, despite 8 out of 10 teams making it.  They've lost the heart and soul of the team (Nowak), speed and finishing up front (Wolff), a hard nosed two-way player who got into the other team's heads every game (Kovalenko), and the fine free kicks and overall influence of a great foreign national (Stoichkov).  On top of all that, they have a new coach, and an inexperienced one at that (Sarachan).  The day-to-day grind of coaching a mediocre club at best will wear down on Dave and he will be at a loss at how to right the ship.  Finally, the WORST goalkeeper in the last quarter of the year last year was Thornton, and while he probably won't be that bad in 2003, there's no reason to believe he'll return to 1998 form. They may have the best fans in MLS, but it will take more than that in 2003 for the Fire to return to the 1998 and 2000 levels.”
- Scott Olesen / 40 / San Diego, Calif.

“To hope that the Fire will make the playoffs this coming season is foolish.  There are so many new young faces, it simply will not happen. What we can hope to see from the Fire is steadily improving soccer that is played with excitement and a never-say-die attitude.  This is the season when the TRUE Fire fans will stand out.  In closing, I do not expect the overall record to be great. However, in the Fire tradition, I do expect them to be the hardest-working team in MLS.” [Editor’s Note: Sorry, Joe. I think you’re talking about the Columbus Crew.]
- Joe Stacheleski

“I don’t think they can do it. But if they do, it will be something like the Revolution this past season. They started horribly, then came together. The Fire have some of the best fans in the league (next to D.C. United fans, of course), and they will hopefully be able to cheer their team into the playoffs, leaving the MetroStars out again.”
- Scott / 16 / Richmond, Va.

“The Chicago Fire are in a world of hurt. Razov will not be what he used to be. Beasley can only lead by example and that may not be enough. Zach Thornton will be close to top form but the team’s success will certainly be in the hands of coach Dave Sarachan. Having been in the locker room and on the sidelines with Dave, when he, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley were teamed up in Region I, I am confident that the team is in good hands. With the confidence of Bruce, the knowledge of Bradley and the people person personality that Dave has, the Fire will be back on top quickly. Were I not a Bradley fan, I would continue to be a Fire fan. I think very highly of Dave and I will root for the Fire, except when they play against the Bradley machine.”
- John Callaghan / 61 / Jackson, N.J.

The unconditional optimists:
“Will the Fire make the playoffs?  They should, because they still have a great team with National Team members in each of the five field areas; namely, Thornton in goal (needs work on free kicks but still a valuble keeper), Bocanegra in defense (getting better and better...soon to Europe?), Armas in defensive midfield (in my opinion world class and the main reason the Fire didn't win it all last year), Beasley in offensive midfield (believe it or not he still needs more confidence) and Razov up front (he hated Stoichkov so this should make Ante even better). I think that Rodrigo Faria will ably fit into Wolff's position and with Kelly Grey and a healthy Evan Whitfield, they can do what Kovalenko did. Stoichkov?  Who cares.  The main problem is that the Fire need a replacement for Nowak and one just doesn't jump off the team list.  Who knows...maybe another star will be born such as Ryan Futagaki.”
- Chris Etzwiler / 37 / Chicago, Ill.

“I believe Dave Sarachan will be a tremendous asset to the Fire this season.  He is a seasoned and well-respected coach with great experience with the National Team and with the early MLS Champion D.C. United squads.  Dave is very familiar with his key players: Razov, Beasley and Thornton from their time with the National Team. Dave's ability to relate to the players and fans will create a winning attitude and positive results in Chicago.”
- Tim Mann / 43 / Sioux City, Iowa

Thanks to everyone for the passionate responses to the February question. Obviously, we couldn’t print all of them, but wish we could, because they were almost all very educated responses to what was a very serious question to many. We especially applaud those folks who care so deeply about the Fire that they ripped off a few good pages about the topic. Love the passion. But for the future, the odds of being printed are better if you keep it under 150 words so that we can put as many as 10 opinions on display each month.

Now for March’s question: Who will be the 2003 MLS MVP (and why)?

Is it finally the year of Clint Mathis? Will Landon Donovan take the ‘Quakes on his back and lead them to another MLS Cup? Will Carlos Ruiz or Taylor Twellman be able to match their scoring success from 2002? Or will a newcomer like Earnie Stewart, Hong Myung Bo or Gilles Grimandi be the man of the year?

That’s all the help you’re getting from me. It’s your time to decide. E-mail your BRIEF, but well-crafted response to PLEASE INCLUDE YOUR FULL NAME, AGE AND CITY OF RESIDENCE. Feel free to submit responses for as many months as you wish, but in the interest of sharing the spotlight, we will be giving space to different respondents from month to month.


Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Off-season MLS Pick-ups)
2) In Threes (w/ U-19 WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris)
3) Desert Island Discs (w/ WNT midfielder Tiffany Roberts)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT midfielder Ben Olsen)
5) Mark That Calendar (On to the Algarve...)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT, U-21 WNT forward Lindsay Tarpley)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Who will save the Fire in 2003?)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (Algarve Cup Trivia)

Download this issue of Center Circle (.pdf).

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