Fire open preseason with gaps to fill

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- There is a high level of uncertainty when looking at the eventual 2011 Chicago Fire roster. The number of newcomers and trialists far outweigh the returning group from last year's squad.

The Fire went through their second preseason training day on Tuesday at the Bridgeview Soccer and Sports Dome. And head coach Carlos de los Cobos and his staff have a challenging stretch to evaluate and mold a young and eager group of players that simply is in a different place in their careers than the veterans and other personnel losses were following last season.

"I know the fans are waiting to see a different team [from last year's squad]," De los Cobos said. "I am excited because we have new guys, young players, we brought from the draft. We have two guys in the back line like Cory Gibbs, who is an experienced player. Josip Mikulic is a special player -- a young player, but with experience. Now we need to work, because we have no excuses."

The absence of a postseason spot last year unquestionably will be a driving force for the modest-sized returning group, led by defensive midfielder and recently-named captain Logan Pause.

"I want to help re-energize a group that tasted the bitterness of being unsuccessful," Pause said. "I'm grateful that the staff has the confidence in me to lead, but it's not just on me. It's on every person that walks in that door every day."

Gibbs, who the Fire picked up in the MLS re-entry draft late last year, will be looked upon for his veteran experience.

"I just have to translate what I know onto the field to the best of my ability and not be shy to communicate, at whatever level that is, with the staff and the players," Gibbs said. "We just need to win. They weren't as successful as they would have liked to be last year, and I need to step in and help in any way, and bring these young kids in."

The defensive third could wind up being one of the stronger points of this team, especially with second-year goalie Sean Johnson's growth. From his 2010 rookie season through his recent debut with the U.S. National Team, Johnson has demonstrated a rapid progression -- one that has him heading into the year as the team's No. 1. Then again, there are no guarantees, as evidenced by last year's late change of the guard from Jon Busch to recently-released goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra to Johnson.

There are gaping holes among many of the team's lines. The two biggest areas of concern are central midfield and the offensive third. Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa are strongholds in the midfield, and Baggio Husidic provided some timely goals last year.

Nevertheless, there was an awful lot of soccer mileage and experience that retired (C.J. Brown and Brian McBride) or moved elsewhere (Freddie Ljungberg and Wilman Conde).

"It's totally different. We've lost a lot of guys and lost some really strong leaders," forward Calen Carr said. "I think a lot of guys are looking to step in and help continue the tradition. I've had some great guys who showed me the ropes when I came into the team. We have a lot of new faces. Whatever I can do to help out in that respect, I will. I think there's a nice energy with the team -- tons of new faces. But the team's going to change over the next month or so."

"There is going to be a little bit of a honeymoon phase," Pause said. "It happens every year. After a couple weeks, you'll really start to see what the guys are like, when we're two or three weeks into double days. Right now, it's easy to get up [for training]. If it's not, then we have issues."