Chicago Fire 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

Eduardo MendezCorrespondent IIFebruary 24, 2014

Chicago Fire 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season

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    M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

    Frank Yallop's tenure as the new head coach of the Chicago Fire will be the club's story to watch in 2014, but what additional storylines will complete your season preview?

    In part eight of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the Fire this season. The number and player to watch, as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar, will be delved into with great detail.

    Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.

Offseason Transactions

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    Chicago Fire Communications

    Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS's complete list of offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.

     

    Players in

    D/MLovel PalmerTrade from Seattle
    FHarrison ShippHomegrown
    GKKyle ReynishFree Transfer
    MChris RitterHomegrown
    DJhon Kennedy HurtadoTrade from Seattle
    DPatrick IanniTrade from Seattle
    FGiuseppe GentileWaiver Draft
    MBenji JoyaWeighted Lottery

     

    Players out

    GKPaolo TornaghiWaived
    MArevalo RiosOption Declined
    DMichael VideiraOption Declined
    MCorben BoneOption Declined
    MJoel LindpereOption Declined
    FMaicon SantosOption Declined
    DShaun FrancisOut of Contract
    DWells ThompsonOut of Contract
    MDaniel PaladiniTraded to Columbus
    DJalil AnibabaTraded to Seattle
    MBrendan KingWaived
    FKellen GulleyWaived
    FFederico PuppoContract Terminated
    DAustin BerryTraded to Philadelphia

The Story to Watch: Frank Yallop's Newest Tenure

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    The Chicago Fire have only reached the playoffs once since 2010.

    With the hiring of Frank Yallop, the club now believes it has its man to return to postseason glory.

    Coach Yallop spent the last five-plus years as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes. His earliest stint with the club dates back to 2001—a successful tenure that saw the Quakes lift the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cups. A second stint in the reincarnated version of the club was met by marginal success and a plethora of mediocrity. 

    San Jose finished with a 57-61-54 record after Yallop returned in 2008. A record teetering below average was only highlighted by a pair of playoff appearances and the 2012 Supporters' Shield.

    It wasn't enough to save his job.

    Fortunately for the Fire's newly appointed man, club owner Andrew Hauptman was clear on the club's official website that he is "100 percent" on board with giving Yallop multiple years to produce a winner:

    Yeah, 100 percent yes. I don't shy away from wanting to compete. I don't shy away from wanting to win. But having said that I think it's important to have patience as well. I think I've shown that through the first iteration of management, the first group we had over the six years. I always go into every situation assuming that it's for the long term and with anything you learn, you get smarter and you make certain decisions with your heart, you make certain decisions with your head. I can say that with this decision, I'm making it 100 percent with my head.

    But it's expectations, not patience, that will fall on the shoulders of Yallop this season.

    The fact remains: Of the 12 players that totaled more than 1,000 minutes for the Fire last season, 10 have returned for 2014. Some offseason acquisitions have been made to deepen, and in some cases, even better the squad.

    More on that later.

    After a surging finish to the season, the expectations are for Chicago to compete and finish the job it couldn't in 2013.

The Number to Watch: 59

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    For those who heavily supported Mike Magee's 2013 MLS MVP campaign, the number 59 carries a weighted significance.

    That was the combined point total of the Fire and Los Angeles Galaxy with the 29-year-old on the roster. Before being traded to Chicago on May 24, the Galaxy were a modest 5-4-2 with their five-year man. After returning to his hometown, the Fire benefited greatly. They finished the season on a 12-6-6 run.

    The club, however, still failed to make the playoffs.

    All that aside, "Magee's" 59 points still would have been enough to match the point total of the Supporters' Shield champions, the New York Red Bulls.

    Now, Magee and company will look to build on their late-season surge. But one individual achievement might be in the way.

    The reigning MLS MVP is on a quest. His destination: Brazil and a chance to represent his nation in the 2014 World Cup. Food poisoning reportedly kept Magee from shining in an earlier friendly against South Korea.

    But he remains optimistic and expects to use his performances with the Fire as his justification for a ticket to Brazil, this according to Anthony Zilis on MLS's official website:

    It was all positive. I'm just unfortunate I missed a game that I thought would have showed him what kind of player I was. You can only show so much in training, so I missed that opportunity. But there's no looking back now. All I can do now is perform with the Fire, which I intended to do anyway.

    But for those expecting another remarkable season from Magee, heed this warning: Temper your expectations.

    No player in MLS history has ever had back-to-back 20-goal seasons.

    Not Landon Donovan. Not Chris Wondolowski. Not Roy Lassiter. Not Stern John. Not Mamadou Diallo and definitely not Carlos Ruiz

    The only number that should matter here is the amount of points he helps his club obtain. Especially if the Fire want to make the playoffs, not barely miss it.

The Player to Watch: Jhon Kennedy Hurtado

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Competition is brewing in Chicago.

    Well, it was.

    In a deal that saw many moving parts, chief among them a trio of veteran defenders, the Chicago Fire acquired Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni from the Seattle Sounders in exchange for Jalil Anibaba. MLS SuperDraft picks were also involved in this intricate trade. 

    According to assistant coach C.J. Brown, the acquisitions of Hurtado and Ianni created more than depth.

    As reported by Anthony Zilis on the club's official website, Brown expects the battle for starting minutes to be an asset for the club in 2014:

    I think all you need is competition. For the past few years, or last year at least, that back line didn't have competition. It was just that back line. Now, we brought in competition, so I think everybody's going to be raining hard every week, putting in the work that's necessary for the weekend. It's going to be a very hard decision for us to put a starting four on the backline.

    The one acquisition bringing the most heat to Chicago's backline is Hurtado.

    The 30-year-old center-back started in at least 20 matches for the Sounders since 2011. When dissecting his numbers from last season, they equal, if not best those of his new teammate Bakary Soumare:

    PlayerGamesMinsINTsBlocksClearancesTacklesAerials
    Berry343060129202694199
    Hurtado262153108151444782
    Soumare25217883171834437

    Early in the preseason, the partnership of Hurtado and Soumare have seen a majority of the starting minutes. Berry, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, wasn't far behind in his conditioning after offseason shoulder surgery.

    Clearly something was in the works as Coach Yallop expected his two most experienced veterans to start the season:

    You never say exactly what you're going to do, but it feels like they will be a good pairing in our defense. But again, things happen in preseason, there's injuries, there's lack of form, all of that. I would think [Hurtado and Soumare] would be starting the season together, and that's not to say Patrick and Austin aren't right there, knocking on the door. We have four very good center backs.

    Well, now the Fire have three "good center-backs".

    In a surprise move, Chicago traded Berry on Monday to the Philadelphia Union in exchange for allocation money. According to Coach Yallop, the move was made to become cap compliant by March 1.

    For Hurtado, it looks like the competition is no longer there.

The Match to Watch: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Chicago Fire

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    Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

    One could easily point to the Brimstone Cup match in late August against FC Dallas. Though, to be honest, who doesn't FC Dallas have a cup match against? 

    The Fire's home opener against the Red Bulls on March 23 serves as another honorable mention. A rivalry that dates back to 1998 only intensified after New York eliminated Chicago from playoff contention last season. Expect the "revenge" factor to be at play here.

    But the match to watch comes on July 23, 2014.

    There's only one narrative here: Frank Yallop's return to San Jose.

    The story of his journey to Chicago has already been covered ad nauseam in our story to watch for 2014. But expect the same narratives to be recycled ahead of this midsummer showdown in at Buck Shaw Stadium.

    Even better, the drama will be there to unfold before a nationally televised audience.

    There is no heated rivalry. There's no cup to be won. 

    Heck, not even a semblance of animosity will exist on July 23, according to Yallop himself:

    Looking back, I was there for five and a half years, six years, and it felt right for both parties. We had discussions about moving forward with the club and I have a lot of respect for the people that own the club and that work for the club, and we’d come to the decision between the two of us that it was best that we part ways.

    Nothing was ugly or anything said from either side, and that was exactly how it was, that we both decided that the time was right and it's worked out great for myself, and worked out great with the hiring of Mark Watson in San Jose, so it’s good all around.

    But don't think for a second this isn't the match Coach Yallop wants to win most. Competitive pride—an attribute every professional has—is at stake in mid-July.

     

    Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics. Follow @Mendez_FC