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Fire have all the pieces to contend

Editor's note: This is the 12th of 13 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2007 season.

2006 record and finish: 13-8-11, (third in the Eastern Conference).

Key additions: F Cuauhtemoc Blanco, D/M Bakary Soumare, GK Jon Busch

Key losses: F Andy Herron, F Nate Jaqua, GK Zach Thornton, D Tony Sanneh

Key questions facing team

1. Does Blanco still have the goods?

Despite his occasional injury, when Blanco has been on the field for Club America this year, he generally has performed well.

What Blanco undoubtedly adds to the Fire is an element of the unexpected. While the speed and physical nature of Major League Soccer might leave him scrambling to adjust, Blanco has a flair for original play and surprising moves.

"It's nice to have a guy in the attacking end of the field who can make plays and create plays and chances," Chicago coach Dave Sarachan said.

Beyond his technical skill, Blanco is renowned for his competitive drive, a concentration that leads to game-changing sequences when something important is at stake.

It could be that his focus will waver without the fervent support he has gained in Mexico. Motivation can be hard to find on the tough turf of Giants Stadium or during a rainy match in cavernous Arrowhead stadium.

Sarachan was counting on Blanco's professional pride to manifest in such scenarios.

"He's a winner. He's excited about being here and we're excited about having him be a part of our team."

2. Can Chris Armas stay healthy?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Chicago has some potential, but their chances depend on who steps up. When they got rid of Zach Thornton, I think it showed that they have a lot of faith in that new young goalkeeper of theirs, Matt Pickens. I think defensively, they were concerned about CJ Brown and his age. Dasan Robinson is a good fit in the back for what Dave Sarachan is looking for. As far as their attack, I just don't think that Chris Rolfe, as much as he's been touted as being the next best thing, is that at all. I think that's too much responsibility. Adding Blanco helps but losing Nate Jaqua is going to take a toll."

Eric Wynalda is an ESPN soccer analyst.

"It starts with Chris Armas," Sarachan said of the team's effort. "He's the heart and soul of our group and our captain."

That quote encapsulates Armas' importance to the Fire, but he is of an age when injuries are increasingly likely. He already has battled back from the sort of ligament tears that can destroy playing careers.

The next one might not heal as easily.

Other veteran leaders also will be counted on to help guide the squad.

"Jim Curtin, Diego Gutierrez, C.J. Brown, Logan Pause and Ivan Guerrero -- these are guys who know what it takes to be successful and win," Sarachan said. "It's going to be sort of spread out among those veterans to set the tone and to get our young guys up to speed."

3. Which young forward is ready to shine?

The lack of experience is what is most striking in the attacking corps. Jaqua and Herron combined to score 17 goals last season. That output will be missed.

As the next-highest goal scorer from 2006 remaining, Chris Rolfe now has to deal with the pressure of expectations their absence creates.

Rolfe has the touch and vision to be an extremely good forward and is already a regular in the revolving door of the national team options.

"Young players become veterans pretty quickly and guys like Rolfe and even Chad Barrett to an extent now, these are guys who have a few years in the league and now it's their responsibility to have an impact," said Sarachan. "This is what we've invested in."

Barrett is a bit Rooney-like in style of play as well as appearance. He barrels to the goal with a similar sense of purpose, though he lacks Rooney's dribbling ability. His strength and timing in the goal area makes him an effective target for crosses.

If Rolfe or Barrett falters, the Fire have another option they can turn to -- Calen Carr. The speedy striker proved in Open Cup competition last year that he is a true talent and after a year of adjustment to the pro game, might be ready to perform on a larger stage.

Biggest X-factor: Fan support

ESPN Zone
Kyle Beckerman (Colorado Rapids) and Bobby Boswell (D.C. United) will be at the ESPN Zone in Denver on Thursday April 5th at 5:30 MST for an autograph signing and informal question and answer session.

The Zone will also be giving away tickets to the MLS opener (April 7) between D.C. United and Colorado.

Few MLS clubs have had a fan following that is as fervent and enthusiastic as the Fire. Part of what triggered that phenomenon was a loyal ethnic community responding to the excellent play of a Polish star, Peter Nowak, for the club.

Now another country's hero has arrived, and the sizable Mexican community around the city has a chance to see Blanco in action for the local MLS team. Their interest could swell not only the numbers of Fire fans, but also the level and quality of fan participation.

Players, like any performers, respond to an enthusiastic audience. The motivation of the squad could reach new levels with sold-out crowds at Toyota Park cheering each victory.

There is bound to be something of an awkward transition, though, since Blanco is associated so strongly with both the Mexican national team and his former club in Mexico. Many jerseys at games may be blue/yellow or green for some time.

A certain amount of resentment among longstanding Fire fans is to be expected, but if the melding of the two groups -- Fire fans and Blanco fans -- eventually takes place, Chicago could have the best "12th man" in the league.

Outlook

Chicago's midfield, when its game is on, is one of the best in the entire league. Justin Mapp has matured and raised both the standard and consistency of his play. His work with the national team earlier this year should translate into starting the regular season close to peak form. Thiago still can provide a spark.

Despite the relative youth of goalkeeper Matt Pickens, Chicago appears solid in the back as well.

"We have depth," Sarachan said. "A coach will never say that we're a complete roster, but I think we're close."

Blanco might add that extra something that puts Chicago over the top. His arrival at the middle of the season could help the club to surprise other squads in the league who will not have had time to adjust to his tricks. Unlike the Galaxy, Chicago is not facing a challenging road stint around the date of Blanco's anticipated arrival, so he will have the opportunity to perform well for the home fans.

If he does, a league final could be the end result.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.