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Fire poised to contend in 2009

Editor's note: This is the fourth of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. San Jose will be previewed on Monday.

2008 record and finish: 13-10-7 (Second in Eastern Conference)

Key additions: M Baggio Husidic

Key losses: M Stephen King, D Diego Gutierez, F Tomasz Frankowski, D Lider Marmol

Three questions facing this team:

1. Which Cuauhtemoc Blanco will show up?

When Blanco wound up a finalist for MLS MVP honors last season, casual observers must have figured Blanco was enjoying a second strong season in MLS, but close observers were fully aware that Blanco's 2008 was far from worthy of the nod.

Blanco was dominant in the first half of the season, and was a key factor in the Fire getting off to such a strong start to the 2008 season, but he also faded late and his diminishing form played a major role in Chicago's late-season dip in form. The Fire finished 3-4-2 in its final nine MLS regular-season matches.

Chicago head coach Denis Hamlett believes that Blanco playing through his first full MLS season was a reason for the late-season slide and he believes the 36-year-old Blanco can benefit from having his minutes managed better in 2009. If Blanco can make it through a full season playing like the player he showed he can be in 2007 and early in 2008, the Fire will be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

2. How will a full season of Brian McBride impact the Fire?

When McBride arrived in Chicago this past fall, he was thought of as a potential savior and the missing piece to a championship puzzle. He could still be those things, just a year later than some would have expected.

John Harkes' Take:
"To me, Chicago underachieved last year with the talent that they have. Essentially there was a transition period that they went through between bringing McBride back, trying to get him to mesh into the fold with Blanco. With Diego Gutierrez now retired, you lose a good leader there in the back. With the performance of Jon Busch last year in goal, his starting role is secure for this year. Chicago has some good players, now it's just a matter of how they're going to mesh together and come together, if they can challenge for that title."

There is no denying that the arrival of McBride forced the Fire to adjust to a different approach to its attack, with McBride serving as a new focal point up top. Now, with a full preseason to help fine-tune the attack and help McBride establish a rapport with his teammates.

Having McBride from the start of the season is already paying dividends, with the U.S. national team legend establishing himself as a team leader and mentor for the many young players on the squad.

3. Which 2008 starters will lose their starting jobs?

When you play for the deepest team in MLS there is always a chance you could lose your starting job and the Fire has several positions up for grabs.

The midfield has a plethora of options for Hamlett, who boasts Blanco, Justin Mapp, John Thorrington, Chris Rolfe and Marco Pappa as attacking options. Will the promising Pappa unseat Mapp on the left flank, or take over on the right? Will Thorrington move into the middle or stay on the right? Will Rolfe see more time at forward alongside McBride, or will he be used on the right?

Then there is the forward position, where McBride will be penciled into one spot. It remains unclear whether Hamlett will play a one-forward formation, or if he will pair McBride with one of his handful of speedster forwards in a 4-4-2.

The wealth of options aren't limited to the attack. Chicago brings back the entire defense that finished second in MLS in goals allowed AND is expected to see Dasan Robinson and C.J. Brown return from injury-plagued 2008 seasons. Will Robinson beat out Brandon Prideaux for the right back spot? Can C.J. Brown play well enough to lead Hamlett to consider using Wilman Conde in a defensive midfield role?

In other words, Hamlett has some tough decisions to make. He needs to settle on a starting lineup and then find minutes for his loaded roster. With SuperLiga and U.S. Open Cup also on the schedule, the Fire will be pretty busy this year, something Hamlett will be counting on as he tries to rest older players and develop his bench options.

Biggest X-factor: Chris Rolfe

Coming off a year in which he set career highs in goals (9), assists (7) and minutes played, Rolfe is poised to have a breakout season. With opposing defenses focusing on Blanco and McBride, Rolfe has the speed and finishing ability to punish teams who focus too much on the Fire's veterans.

Where will Rolfe play? Hamlett can deploy him on the right flank or up top where he can use his speed to run off McBride.

While Rolfe is coming off a strong year, Justin Mapp is reaching a point in his career where he needs to produce. He has never scored more than three goals in a season in his career, but his eight assists in three of the past four seasons show he still has the ability to spark an attack. The Fire will need more from him, and Mapp will have to step up his game if he is going to hold off Marco Pappa from taking his job.

Breakout player to watch: Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa

Before the 2008 MLS draft, Patrick Nyarko was regarded as the best prospect in his draft class. Then he slid in the first round, arrived to the club late after finishing school, then battled injuries that limited his rookie season to 159 minutes.

Now healthy and a year more mature, Nyarko could be one of the league's standout second-year players. His speed, finish ability and skill on the ball should help him battle for minutes and start to show the tools that had scouts buzzing about him a year ago.

Pappa's path to a starting role in 2009 is blocked by several quality midfielders, but that may not be enough to stop the Guatemalan winger from making a major impact. His combination of speed and youthful aggressiveness stands in stark contrast to Mapp's seemingly aloof approach to the game and Hamlett could have a tough decision to make.

The Fire saw several players enjoy breakout years in 2008, including Bakary Soumare, John Thorrington, Jon Busch and Gonzalo Segares. If those four players can maintain the high levels they set this past season, Chicago will do just fine even if none of its youngsters emerges as an impact player, but if Nyarko and/or Pappa turns into a difference maker, the Fire will look like a real title favorite.

MLS Primetime
March 19
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)

Outlook:

There were stretches in 2008 when the Chicago Fire played some of the best soccer in the league, but also stretches when it was hard to understand how a team so talented could play so poorly. Keeping the core of that talented team together should help the Fire, as should having McBride and Pappa for a full season and having Nyarko and Dasan Robinson healthy.

So what does the Fire need to work on? Playing better at home would be a start. The Fire managed just two more points at home than on the road in 2008 (only New England had a worse percentage). Part of that had to do with the Fire's league-best road record (6-5-4), but the team did struggle to make Toyota Park a tough place to play.

Chicago also needs Blanco to maintain his high level of play throughout the season. That will require resting him much more than he was rested this past season. Will Blanco be open to that? Can Chicago afford to do that? It needs to happen because if it doesn't, Blanco will be in danger of fading badly later in the year.

The most important job will be Hamlett's. He must find the best starting lineup, and find a rotation that keeps his players happy and sharp. That is easier said than done, but having a leader like McBride around should help.

With McBride around for a full year, and a bench that has surpassed Houston's as the league's deepest, the Fire is a legitimate MLS Cup title contender. The Columbus Crew still has to be considered the favorite, but Chicago heads into 2009 as the clear-cut second choice.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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