Now that the 2011 season has concluded with a second consecutive non playoff campaign the Fire as an organization face several pivotal questions that will shape the team for the foreseeable future. While the 2010 season culminated in some disarray amid what was certain to be a rebuilding process the feeling this time is much different.
On the strength of a 7-2-2 finish the team narrowly missed qualifying for post season play and showed signs of the ability to become one of the top contenders for the Eastern Conference title in 2012. Of course much discussion will be had over the next several months regarding who stays and who goes but it's hard to ignore the success the team enjoyed after Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini joined the club.
The big issues involve the important choice of a permanent head coach, filling in the remainder of the roster while ensuring that key players return, and keeping the momentum that concluded 2011 going into 2012.
Who Will Be the Head Coach in 2012?
The question first and foremost on everyone's mind is whether or not Frank Klopas will have the "interim" tag removed and become the permanent head coach. While Klopas indicated that he wasn't looking to be a head coach after taking over for Carlos De Los Cobos in June he seems to have had a change of thinking after making it clear that he's enjoyed the view from the sideline. After starting his first eleven matches in almost identical fashion to De Los Cobos' first eleven games of the year (1-4-6 for DLC to 1-3-7 for Klopas) the team started to come together after the additions of Pardo and Grazzini in July changed the dynamic of the side. The team improved considerably on the defensive end under Klopas before the July additions began changing the offensive production and eventually results.
An impressive run in the last eleven matches of the season almost landed the Fire the 10th MLS playoff berth but a loss at home to FC Dallas after dropping the US Open Cup Final a week earlier proved to be the killer. While showing plenty of heart in a thrilling come from behind victory in Washington and an exciting season ending home victory against playoff bound Columbus the team clearly was one of the better sides in MLS over the last two months of the season and the won-loss record shows it. Klopas ended the year with an 8-5-10 record as "interim" head coach and earned the confidence of what seems like every player in the locker room.
“I’ll be back somewhere. I don’t know where, exactly," said Klopas after the Crew match. "When I stepped in, we said that we’re going to do this until the end of the season and then sit down as an organization when the season is done. In the next couple weeks we’ll sit down and make the best decision going forward for the Fire. I’ve enjoyed every second of my professional job, especially what I’ve done here as interim coach with this group of guys. I’ve always believed in this group,” he continued. (Listen to his entire post game presser here)
Klopas is almost certain to be back with the organization in 2012 either as Technical Director or Head Coach if he wants the position. I believe he does and he'll convey that to the decision making team of Andrew Hauptman, Javier Leon, and Mike Jeffries when the time comes if it hasn't already. Whether or not that answer is the consensus among the group remains to be seen but it would seem that starting over again with another head coach when a rhythm has finally been established and results have started to turn their way would be counter productive at this point.
If a new manager is indeed the direction Hauptman and company choose to take, the new man in charge certainly has to be familiar with MLS given the recent failures of foreign coaches. Another gamble on a foreign coach is not a move the Fire can afford at this point. Now that Jesse Marsch is at the helm in Montreal remaining options familiar with MLS could include the likes of Eric Wynalda, CJ Brown, Richie Williams, Steve Nicol, or Gary Smith if he parts ways with the Rapids. Hauptman needs to be one hundred percent positive that any possible replacement can be appreciably better than 8-5-10 or risk keeping the revolving door on the bench turning and contributing to the lack of consistency on the pitch over the last several seasons.
Will Pardo and Grazzini Return?
While Pavel Pardo is out of contract he has expressed his desire to return to the Fire next season and possibly beyond. The big question concerning Pardo when he was signed in July was whether or not the 35 year old midfielder had much left in the tank. He's proven that he does indeed have more than a few miles left and has also been an invaluable asset off the pitch in terms of leadership and professionalism.
Sebastian Grazzini seems to be the elusive playmaker that most teams covet. His flair for the pinpoint pass and classy finishing is reminiscent of what Cuauhtemoc Blanco brought to the team when he joined the Fire in the middle of the 2007 season. That special quality is incredibly hard to find in MLS so the Fire should do whatever is necessary to ensure that Grazzini's contract is extended beyond it's current expiration of June 2012. It's no coincidence that the team's turnaround began to take place as Grazzini and Pardo became comfortable in the side.
This pair of central midfielders is the key to being competitive for the top of the Eastern table in 2012 and extending their contracts should be made priority one after deciding who the head coach will be.
Have We Seen the Last of Marco Pappa?
Rumors of European interest in the Guatemalan winger have been swirling for several months. A move to Holland seemed to have the most weight behind it but sources within the team denied any talks had taken place. Pappa himself dismissed the talk as just rumors but wouldn't rule out a move if an opportunity arose.
With his contract expiring at the end of the 2012 season the Fire risk losing Pappa on a free transfer come January 2013 if they don't make a move with him now. It would make sense to sell if the price is right come January in order to use the transfer/allocation and international roster spot in order to improve the team further in 2012. Ideally it would be great to keep Pappa if his contract can be extended but it's also important to note that he never quite seemed comfortable in finding his game while Grazzini was on the pitch and in control of the ball.
How Can the Roster Be Improved?
The core of a solid team seems to be in place but several areas need improvement in order to compete for more than just a playoff spot. Dominic Oduro enjoyed a career year but teams that are disciplined enough to not let him get behind the back line can nullify his speed somewhat by not over committing. Klopas and company need to add a striker capable of creating his own shot while providing a target in the penalty area in order to ensure that teams can't just focus on stopping Oduro. A quality striker would also provide protection in the event that Oduro can't reproduce his sterling 2011 season.
Patrick Nyarko excelled in combination with Oduro in the second half of the season and that combination could still be an option if another striker is added depending on the individual match up. Nyarko could also see a move to midfield if Pappa is no longer on the team or Logan Pause is moved to the bench.
Pause to his credit, played very well as a right side midfielder in combination with Pardo and Grazzini but a solid two way winger who can cross a ball with some efficiency is still needed be it on the left or the right. Crossing the ball accurately was a problem all year and will continue to be a weakness until the position is fortified.
Orr Barouch has shown promise in a reserve role and could play a bigger role in 2012 as indications are that the Fire have exercised the option to buy his contract after a one year loan spell.
Depth at the outside back position sorely needs to be addressed. Dan Gargan played well after being acquired from Toronto but the player that the Fire were relying on to fill that role missed the entire season with a combination of injuries. Steven Kinney spent the early part of the summer recovering from a torn achilles then missed the latter part with a groin injury. There is also no reliable back up for Gonzalo Segares on the left side.
The Fire didn't use a Designated Player spot in 2011 after striking out swinging with Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg to a lesser extent in 2o1o. They can't afford to wait until the middle of the season again before adding key players and expecting them to step in seamlessly. The full roster (or close to it) has to be in place come training camp in February.
Who to Protect in the Expansion Draft?
Each team can protect eleven players not including Generation Adidas and Homegrown Players from selection by expansion Montreal Impact. Who those eleven will be is sure to be debated over the next several weeks. Diego Chaves has shown that he's probably a third or fourth forward on the roster, has an expiring contract, and takes up an international spot so he may be on the "available" list. Cristian Nazirit and his big salary probably won't be back. Daniel Paladini is a serviceable midfielder who may be attractive to an expansion team as is Baggio Husidic. We'll look at the expansion draft and the protected list again in the next few weeks as November 23 approaches.
What's the Plan Off the Pitch?
Julian Posada has been in charge of the business side of the club for just over one year now and the question most commonly heard over the last twelve months still lingers? What about the jersey sponsor? While the Fire publicly insisted that there were several opportunities but nothing was imminent for the better part of the summer it's important that this issue be resolved before the start of next season.
Last offseason saw a record increase in new season ticket sales but a second consecutive non playoff year will make replicating that feat very difficult particularly because the Fire's presence in the local sporting landscape really hasn't changed or improved in the last twelve months. There are many questions regarding the off the field product but that's a subject for another day.