Fire will rely on Pappa for creative spark
Breaking up may be hard to do, but you'd never know it by the way the Chicago Fire have moved on after the offseason departure of Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
In 2009, Blanco was the face -- and feet -- of the Fire. He was a player who put butts in the seats while dazzling fans with his panache in the attacking third. But when his contract expired at the end of the campaign, Blanco opted to return to Mexico with second-division side Veracruz, and as 2010 dawns, the Fire seem determined to put their relationship with the Mexican icon firmly in the past.
Of course, part of this is due to the arrival of new head coach Carlos de los Cobos. While coaching El Salvador's national team, de los Cobos fashioned a side heavy on organizational discipline, and early reports have him building the Fire in a similar image. It's a style that seems ill-suited to the freelancing Blanco, and it casts doubt on whether he and Chicago will be reunited -- as has been rumored -- after this summer's World Cup.
But the presence of a new manager aside, there seems to be an inclination to move away from relying heavily on one player for attacking magic, even one as talented as Blanco.
"It's great when you can have special players like Cuauhtemoc, who fans love to watch," Fire technical director Frank Klopas said. "But I think there were moments when we were too predictable last year, that we did rely way too much on Blanco. I think there are going to be more ideas this year in how to attack and play well together. I think there are going to be different options and different variations in our attack.
"And because [in the past] we put so much pressure or stress on one guy, when that guy is missing, what happens to the group? When you rely on everyone in the team, I think that's how you build more team unity and a winning mentality."
The question of course is whether Chicago's offense-by-committee can effectively compensate for both the loss of Blanco and Chris Rolfe, who opted to head overseas to Denmark after playing out his contract. In players like Brian McBride, John Thorrington and the newly acquired Julio Martinez, the Fire have a solid core of talented attacking players. And Justin Mapp, who for years has been long on potential but short on production, has shown a spark early in training camp while assuming a new central midfield role, with McBride lauding the veteran's increased focus. Under de los Cobos, the Fire has been emphasizing a more possession-oriented game, and the system could see Mapp get more touches while being protected defensively by players like Thorrington and Logan Pause.
But the player who could really make Blanco a speck in the Fire's rearview mirror is Marco Pappa. The Guatemalan is the player who, at least in spirit, seems closest to Blanco in terms of his ability to deliver the unexpected, although in Pappa's case it's by beating players one-on-one as well as making the killer pass. And after enjoying a solid campaign that saw him deliver five goals and four assists, it's clear that a good chunk of Chicago's attack will go through Pappa.
"It's an exciting time for [Pappa] from the standpoint that he grew a lot last year," McBride said. "He did extremely well as a young player, and you can see him grow as time goes along. I think the team and the fans are anxious to see him on the ball."
But Klopas and de los Cobos also seem cognizant of placing too much responsibility on the 22-year-old. And while defense was usually an afterthought for Blanco, it's clear that Pappa will need to put in an honest shift on the left wing. That means paying attention to both sides of the ball, and being smart with his decision-making in attack.
"[Pappa] has got a lot of individual ability," Klopas said. "What he's got to realize as a young player is he needs to have more of an impact. He still has a tendency as a young player to be in and out [of the game] and not be as consistent throughout the 90 minutes.
"Also I think as a player with a lot of skill and ability, he has to realize it has to be about the team. Yeah, he can beat a player, but is it good for the team? He's got to be thinking more in that sense as he matures."
It's a message that Pappa appears to have taken to heart. In a phone interview earlier this week, nearly every response saw the Fire midfielder invoke the concept of team. Even when the subject turned to his ability in the attacking half, Pappa spoke of taking "more responsible risks."
That doesn't mean the midfielder's self-belief has waned, however. Pappa has long since adapted to the league's notoriously physical ways, and is ready to build on his outstanding 2009 season.
"I feel a little bit more calm now that I have a year and a half under my belt," said Pappa with the help of a translator. "Each season just gives me a little bit more confidence."
If that self-assurance can translate into goals and even a championship, then the shadow cast by Blanco will have disappeared for good.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.