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Jul 21, 2007

Questions remain about Blanco's impact

A Major League Soccer import is set to make his debut this weekend accompanied by some lofty expectations. Not only will this player be expected to fill the stands, but he'll also be asked to salvage his club's season. You're thinking David Beckham, right? Try the Chicago Fire's Cuauhtémoc Blanco, whose arrival in some respects is raising even more questions than that of his English counterpart.

So far, most of the queries surrounding Beckham have been about his league-wide impact. For Blanco, the doubts have been more about the effect he'll have on his team. Can he, at age 34, still deliver the kinds of performances that his reported $2 million salary warrants? Will Blanco adapt to a league known for physical play, all while keeping his volatile temper in check? And most importantly, will his approach towards MLS mirror the professionalism of New York's Juan Pablo Angel or will it more closely resemble that of a quick-buck artist like Lothar Matthaus? The last question in particular is raising plenty of doubts.

"I think we've seen this year with the players that Major League Soccer has signed, like Angel, Guillermo Schelotto and Beckham, they all have great attitudes," said ESPN television analyst Eric Wynalda. "And having a great attitude has never been put in the same sentence with Cuauhtémoc Blanco, ever."

Of course, heading into Sunday's friendly against Scottish giants Celtic, Blanco has been saying all of the right things; about how he wants to win a championship in Chicago and how he is willing to step away from the Mexican national team (at least before being pushed aside) in order to devote himself to the Fire's cause. And goodness knows they need the help. Chicago has prevailed only once in 13 competitive fixtures since May 1, scoring just eight times in that span.

But Blanco's reputation is that of a locker room cancer, despite his immense popularity in Mexico, and it's one that seems ill-suited to the task of resurrecting a season in Chicago that has gone horribly wrong.

Fortunately, the Fire has a captain in Chris Armas who has been around some big name players with even bigger personalities. The likes of Hristo Stoitchkov and even Wynalda himself arrived in Chicago carrying some considerable baggage, and all of them quickly bought into the team concept. It's a scenario that Armas, along with new head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, is confident of replicating.

"You just create a good environment where the guys feel a part of [the team]," said Armas. "Osorio has been at a lot of clubs and dealt with a lot of personalities in the past, and I'm sure it's not going to be an issue. I think the most important thing is that Blanco is going to realize how much respect we have for him. We expect a lot from him, but we have a lot of respect for him and we want him to feel like this is his team."

Whether Blanco is the guy to ignite the Fire's stagnant offense is another issue. Wracked by injuries and international commitments, Chicago's offense has struggled to get anything going this season, so much so that Blanco's creativity will likely not be enough to turn it around. And Osorio is on record as saying that what he needs most is a speedy forward to make penetrating runs, a trait that is not in Blanco's skill set.

In the meantime, the hope is that the eventual return of injured attackers Chris Rolfe and Justin Mapp, when combined with Blanco, will give the Fire enough variety on offense to once again strike some fear in opponents.

That plan is founded on several assumptions, none of which are guaranteed. The first is that Blanco will play at a consistently high level, which given his advanced age and low work rate is suspect. The more likely outcome is that, if healthy, Blanco will have his moments of brilliance, yet will fade in and out of games. Another difficulty will be adjusting to the differences between MLS and the Mexican league.

"I think [Blanco] has to have the mentality to adapt to the style of game that is played over here as well as with his teammates," said Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez via email. "In Mexico, we're accustomed to having better ball-handling technique, and he has the ability to get the ball and to make plays. [In MLS], we're more direct, we have more long passes, and we're more physical with the ball, and in that aspect he's going to have a little bit of trouble adapting. Hopefully, he won't lose patience."

And therein lies the biggest key to Blanco's success. One only had to watch his red card in Mexico's Gold Cup encounter with Honduras on June 10 -- when he was caught elbowing Jorge Samuel Caballeros in the chest after the Honduran defender had planted a kiss on Blanco's ear -- to realize that the Mexican has not mellowed with age. And chances are MLS defenders won't be quite as subtle as Caballeros, although Suarez adds that Blanco's fiery personality has its advantages.

"In every game that [Blanco] plays, he's going to be a target," said Suarez of his former international teammate. "He's going to have a lot of pressure on him. It's going to take work, and due to his strong character, Blanco likes to be provoked. Because of his pride, his best abilities will come out when he is challenged."

No doubt, MLS is hoping that Blanco's passion will remain a part of his game. The league has long wanted the intensity that accompanies international matches between Mexico and the U.S. to trickle down to league level, hence the creation of the soon-to-begin SuperLiga (July 24), which will pit selected MLS teams against their Mexican counterparts. If Blanco can create that kind of atmosphere within MLS, then he'll be worth every penny.

"Blanco is still a great asset to this league, because he understands the principle of heroes and villains, someone who is willing to put on a show, so people will watch," said Wynalda. "It's just going to be difficult for [Chicago], but we'll see what happens."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.