With the possibility of a strike now in the rearview mirror, Major League Soccer is set to start its season as originally scheduled. The players union and the league reached a new 5-year collective bargaining agreement on Saturday.
The deal’s main piece is the increased number of guaranteed player contracts, however, other issues involing player rights have also been resolved. The new developments pave the way for the season to start on schedule when the Seattle Sounders welcome the league’s new expansion team, the Philadelphia Union, to Qwest Field on Thursday night.
The 2010 season is shaping up to be the most popular and successful year since the MLS was founded in 1996, which made the collective bargaining agreement all the more essential. Across the league, there are now 10 state-of-the-art soccer specific stadiums, with another 4 set to go up soon. Big name sponsors and new profit margins for team owners are a great sign for the league’s future.
Locally, the Chicago Fire are looking to build on a successful 2009 campaign that saw them go all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing in a shootout to the eventual MLS champions, Real Salt Lake.
With a new coach and an influx of both international and American talent coming in, the Fire should easily figure into the MLS title race. Carlos de los Cobos is ready to start his first season as an MLS coach after managing several clubs in his native country, Mexico. His experience at a high level and ability to communicate with the spanish-speaking Fire players should bode well for the team’s success.
The Fire has also added a trio of international players. Collins John, a Dutch forward, joins the team this year after stints with several European clubs…most notably Fulham of the English Premier League. Julio Martinez, a 24 year-old El Salvador international midfielder, comes to the Fire on loan from Mexican club, Leon. Krzysztof Krol, another loan player from Bialystok in Poland, will help anchor the Fire defense this season.
The Fire’s offseason did come at a cost, though. Former Fire stars Chris Rolfe, Gonzalo Segares, and Cuahtemoc Blanco have all moved on to European and Central American clubs, so the international signings were absolutely necessary from the team’s perspective.
There isn’t any shortage of young talent, either. Many MLS draft experts said the Fire were among the teams who had the best 2010 draft classes. I expect first-round choice Corben Bone from Wake Forest University to make an impact in the midfield, while UConn alum Kwame Watson-Siriboe should fight for a spot on defense. Add Fire staples like Brian McBride, CJ Brown, Logan Pause, and Wilman Conde to the mix and you have a very solid nucleus of talent.
The Fire will continue to fill up Toyota Park with their notoriously passionate fans, especially Section 8, the team’s official fan club situated in sections 117 and 118, behind the goal. The Fire attracted an average of nearly 15,000 fans per game last year during the season and more than 21,000 fans for the playoffs.
So where will they finish?
Despite the departures of a few key members of last year’s team, I expect the Fire to do very well. As I said, they have added some nice looking newcomers and I think they will use the tough loss in the 2009 playoffs as the driving force for success.
With many of the other MLS teams busy signing new players in the offseason, the league is sure to be as competitive as ever. However, I expect the Fire to finish in the top 4 of their conference, earning them a playoff berth. After that, playoff experience takes over…and the Fire have plenty of it. This team has what it takes to challenge for the title and I think it’s very possible you could see a deep playoff run from the Fire.
Chicago’s season opener is set for this Saturday when they travel to the brand-new Red Bull Arena in New York to take on the New York Red Bulls. A Fire win would be impressive on opening night because New York will be riding plenty of momentum going into the game. They knocked off Brazilian league giants, Santos, 3-1 in an exhibition last night, which served as the inaugural game in Red Bull Arena.