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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
Read

Hamlett tries to steady Fire after offseason turmoil

Editor's note: This is the final MLS team preview by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 10-10-10 (4th in Eastern Conference)

Key additions: F Andy Herron, F Tomasz Frankowski, F Patrick Nyarko

Key losses: M Chris Armas, G Matt Pickens, D Jim Curtin, M Ivan Guerrero, F Paulo Wanchope

Key questions facing this team

1. Can Chicago recover from its winter of discontent?

Last season ended with a renewed sense of optimism for the Fire. A campaign that looked to be going off the rails was salvaged by new coach Juan Carlos Osorio, whose savvy player acquisitions and revamping of the team's defense resulted in a deep playoff run.

But with the season barely over, the Fire sustained a series of body blows that left the organization wobbly. The retirement of longtime captain Chris Armas was tough enough, but the sight of the New York Red Bulls swooping in and whisking Osorio away not only killed any momentum from 2007 but also made for a chaotic offseason. The departure of goalkeeper Matt Pickens to Europe and the subsequent trade demands of Wilman Conde (to New York no less) were the proverbial cherries on Chicago's anchovy sundae.

The job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again now falls to Denis Hamlett, who gets his shot after a 10-year coaching apprenticeship. Having the retired Armas and former Dallas head coach Mike Jeffries by his side as assistants will help, but whether Hamlett can squeeze the same amount of success from this group as Osorio did is an open question.

2. Will Cuauhtémoc Blanco continue his 2007 form?

Only a few brave souls dared to predict that Blanco would light up MLS after signing with Chicago, but that's exactly what he did during the latter half of 2007, and it's safe to say that the Fire wouldn't have made the playoffs without him. Now the question is: Can Blanco do it again?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"I'm happy for Denis Hamlett. I think he's ready for the position. He's a guy who has been there since the inaugural season. He was a great assistant coach. I've played for him, and I've played against him in Chicago. He knows the game and he works hard. I'm rooting for Chicago. It was hard for me to root for Osorio and Blanco last season, because I didn't like the way they were playing. I like the way Denis will be honest with his players. He's a no-BS guy. I believe those guys respect him and they will play for him. He understands how to get a group ready and how to prepare for a game. He does not change the lineup a lot. He's been mentored by Bob Bradley ... I think he learned a lot in the process."

There is no denying the former Mexican international's talent or entertainment value, but a full season of having the bejeezus kicked out of him by MLS defenders, not to mention the upheaval surrounding the team, should test Blanco's hair-trigger temper.

One key to avoiding that scenario is having a healthy Justin Mapp for an entire season. The word out of Chicago is that Mapp has put last year's injury troubles behind him with a sharp preseason. A continuation of that trend would prevent teams from keying exclusively on Blanco, allowing him to more easily find the kind of spaces he exploited so well in 2007.

3. Will the Fire's stable of forwards step up?

One enduring image from last year's playoff run was the sight of a frustrated Blanco watching yet another inch-perfect pass kicked into the cheap seats. To that end, the Fire has reacquired Costa Rican forward Andy Herron and obtained Polish striker Tomasz Frankowski. Add in No. 1 pick Patrick Nyarko as well as incumbents Chris Rolfe, Chad Barrett and Calen Carr, and the Fire have something of a logjam at forward.

This suits Hamlett just fine, who said that he was pleased to "have different options" up top, and the additional numbers should allow the team to ride out the kind of injury bug that crippled them when both Mapp and Rolfe were laid low last season.

The reality, however, is that there are question marks surrounding all of the candidates, with health and/or consistency posing the biggest problems. Hamlett looks slated to begin the season with Barrett and Frankowski up top, with Rolfe set for a role on the right side of midfield, but he'll settle for any one of his striking options stepping up and taking advantage of Blanco's exquisite service.

4. How will the team replace Chris Armas?

For 10 years, Armas was the heart and soul of the franchise, but with the former U.S. international now in a coaching role, the Fire must now find a way to replace not only his on-field leadership, but his work rate and defense.

For that reason, it will likely be a case of Armas-by-committee. Veterans like C.J. Brown, Logan Pause, and Diego Gutierrez will be called upon to shoulder the leadership load, while Pause, Bakary Soumare, and Gutierrez will assume Armas' playing responsibilities.

Biggest X factor: Wilman Conde

Conde's trade demand was just one in a long line of bizarre offseason incidents. In a February e-mail to the Web site Chicago Soccer News, Conde claimed that his "interests and desires are no longer with [the Fire]" and that he preferred to be reunited with Osorio in New York.

But the Fire refused to accommodate Conde's request, and he has since rejoined his teammates for preseason training, although an ankle injury has kept him out of Chicago's last few preseason games. According to Hamlett, the two have "had talks" about Conde's role on the team going forward, with Hamlett stating that he expects the versatile Colombian to play centrally in a four-man back line, and that he isn't concerned about his player's dedication to the cause.

It's a situation that will require continued vigilance on the part of Hamlett to make sure that Conde remains content in Chicago, assuming of course that the player remains in the Windy City. If Conde can at least reprise his 2007 form, it will significantly boost the Fire's chances of challenging for honors.

Breakout player to watch: Bakary Soumare

The Fire has turned mostly to veterans to help plug some of the gaps in their lineup, with Pause set to step in for Armas, and Frankowski slated to take one of the forward slots. But Soumare is one young player who could emerge as a force for Chicago. The University of Virginia product spent most of last year filling in as a defensive midfielder, and there is a chance he could play there again if Pause is needed elsewhere.

But Soumare has spent most of the preseason in the center of defense, where he has put his rugged tackling and 6-foot-4 frame to good use. A central pairing alongside Conde could be formidable indeed, and allow Soumare to learn from one of the league's best.

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England vs. Chicago
8 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose vs. Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Outlook

There is much to like about the Fire. The team has solid options on defense, with Gonzalo Segares and Dasan Robinson among the more underrated defenders in the league. Chicago has a talented midfield, as well, and with Rolfe and Mapp manning the wings, the Fire should possess a more varied attack this season.

But there just seem to be too many questions surrounding this team to see them break into the league's elite. If Hamlett follows through on his plan to employ a four-man back line, then Blanco's creative role means a lot of defensive responsibility will fall on Pause. The North Carolina product is a capable performer, and a candidate to don the captain's armband, but given Mapp's defensive shortcomings, it's a lot to ask of one player. Rolfe could help out in this regard, but that would seem to rob the Fire of his attacking prowess.

There are questions in goal as well, where former Crew netminder Jon Busch is poised to take over for Pickens. Busch's athleticism was his strength during his Columbus days, but after a series of knee injuries he's now relying more on smarts.

It means that a season much like last year is in the offing. A playoff place seems doable, but unless a player like Frankowski emerges as the team's go-to forward, the team still seems a player or two away from being MLS Cup contenders.

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