Chicago Fire players and fans knew a change was coming, but they never could have known just what sort of change was in store when a new coach and trio of players showed up to help salvage a season that once looked lost.
The arrivals of head coach Juan Carlos Osorio and standouts Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Paulo Wanchope and Wilmer Conde have helped the Fire climb back into the Major League Soccer playoff race and post a 4-2-1 record since the MLS All-Star break. The team's 1-0 victory against Columbus moved the Fire into the final MLS playoff spot with six matches remaining in the season.
The revitalization of the Fire began with the arrival of Osorio. The Colombian-born coach, who had been repeatedly passed over for MLS head coaching jobs through the years, has taken full advantage of the opportunity he spent years working for.
"It's extremely satisfying because I'm finally getting my chance," Osorio said of the team's strong start with him in charge. "I'm taking that chance with both hands and I thrive on that challenge. The challenge is to make the Chicago fire into a winning team and a franchise that is going to challenge for a championship in the next three years."
Osorio's first act as Fire coach wasn't a player acquisition or lineup change. It was making coffee in the wee hours of the morning as the first person to show up at Fire practice facilities his first day on the job. The small gesture, coupled with his stirring first speech to his new team, was the first of many signs that the Fire's new coach was ready to immerse himself in a job he had spent years working toward.
"He gave a great speech that first morning and everybody was looking up and looking at him and I knew from that moment that he was going to help turn things around," Fire forward Chris Rolfe said. "He's very dedicated to the job. He's always there before us, watching film, working on different tactical things, and he's always there late.
"Every day we come in he's prepared for what we're going to do that day and how it's going to help us."
"Some of them have been surprised that any one individual can be as passionate as Juan is," Fire president John Guppy said. "He brings that passion to the locker room every single day. It makes players want to work harder, makes them stronger physically and mentally. They want to compete and they want to win for him."
Osorio's impact has been almost immediate. He has transformed the Fire into a defensively disciplined team that has posted five shutouts in seven matches since the All-Star Break. He helped Blanco make a seamless transition to the Fire and he added Wanchope, who he coached at Manchester City, and Conde, who he coached at Colombian club Millonarios.
"Typically when teams go through a coaching change they get energized from the get go as a reflex," said veteran Fire midfielder Diego Gutierrez. "I don't think that's the case with us. He makes everybody buy into what he's trying to do and we're very confident that we're going to make it to the playoffs and do well with him in charge."
Osorio's path to the Fire job began more than seven years ago when he first broke into Major League Soccer as an assistant coach for the MetroStars in 2000. He was credited with being a major reason why the Metros enjoyed their most successful season ever that season. He left the MetroStars to join the coaching staff at Manchester City in the summer of 2001.
Despite the prestige of coaching in the English Premier League, Osorio yearned to return to the United States, not only to coach but to settle here with his family. He looked to have his chance after the 2002 MLS season when the MetroStars searched for Zambrano's replacement. Nick Sakiewicz, the Metros' president at the time, was set to hire Osorio before current U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley expressed an interest in the position. The Metros hired Bradley and Osorio was left wondering if another chance would ever come.
D.C. United and Colorado both considered Osorio but hired Peter Nowak and Fernando Clavijo respectively, leaving Osorio to consider other options for his coaching future. He didn't see opportunities developing in England so Osorio made the very difficult decision to leave England to coach Colombian club Millonarios a year ago. After a successful season with Millonarios, Osorio made Guppy's short list of candidates to replace long-time Fire coach Dave Sarachan.
"Firing Dave was a difficult decision but I just felt that at that point the team needed new energy, new idea, fresh persepective," Guppy said. "Juan has come in and brought all of those qualities on a tremendous level. The players have reacted to that. The players that we had here earlier in the year are playing better and we've added some quality players that have made the team better."
Blanco has done his part to rejuvenate the Fire, providing an imposing attacking influence in central midfield not seen in Chicago since Peter Nowak patrolled the middle of the park. The Mexican star has blended in well with his new team, showing none of the bad attitude he has become infamous for.
"He's a great teammate and hasn't come in with any sort of ego or anything," Rolfe said of Blanco. "He's always cracking jokes in Spanish so you know he's got a good attitude and good sense of humor."
Osorio also brought in Wanchope and Conde and the pair have already made an impact. The two combined for the Fire's lone goal in its crucial win against Columbus last week. Wanchope has lost a step since he emerged as a prominent striker in Europe, but he still has the tools to score goals in MLS.
Conde may wind up being the best long-term acquisition of the three. The 25-year-old central defender combines strength with impressive ball skills that have made an already stingy Fire defense even tougher and his public proclamation that he would like to play for the U.S. national team some day will only endear him to Fire fans.
With Wanchope providing an experienced presence up front, Blanco running the show in the midfield and Conde serving as a new anchor in the back, Osorio's revamped Fire bears little resemblance to the team the coach inherited back in July. Now, Chicago has a team its fans enjoy watching and a team opponents no longer look forward to playing.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.
These Americans made big impressions at home this summer
while earning big opportunities abroad this fall -- Doug McIntyre, ESPN The Mag
DaMarcus Beasley, Glasgow Rangers (Scotland) --
The 25-year-old midfielder and two-time World Cup vet
is playing in his third country in three years. After two seasons in Holland, Beasley spent 2006-07 on loan to Manchester City. Injuries limited him to 22 EPL tilts, but he's in top form now, as he showed with his solid Gold Cup turn. Plus, he's all but guaranteed Champions League or UEFA Cup ball, as Rangers have won the Scottish title or finished second eight of the past nine years.
Michael Bradley, Heerenveen (The Netherlands) --
He mostly came off the bench for his Dutch league team last season, but he earned a starting job this August after a busy June and July starring for both the U.S. U-20s and the senior squad, coached by his father, Bob. The younger Bradley, who's now 20, is an imposing defensive midfielder, and if he stays healthy, he'll play a key role in Heerenveen's UEFA Cup matches and in the Americans' World Cup qualifying campaign, which kicks off next year.
Freddy Adu, Benfica
Portugal's most popular club paid $2 million for Adu's services in late July on the heels of his spectacular U-20 World Cup. But after debuting in a Champions League qualifying win over FC Copenhagen, he didn't even dress for Benfica's first league game. Following that 1-1 tie with lowly Leixoes, coach Fernando Santos was fired. Now Adu must impress a new boss and hope things go better than they did in his uninspiring three-plus seasons stateside.