A losing season changes the tone of how a team conducts its business and weighs its values when it heads into the next campaign.
That is not to say that the Chicago Fire lost sight of the ultimate goal of attempting to put together a winning club during their sub-par 2010 season. But the Fire's demeanor and the way that they have conducted business in the offseason are noticeably different.
The "attractive" and "possession" lingo of last year from head coach Carlos de los Cobos and their players is less at the forefront, and the "calculated risk" approach of bringing in expensive disappointments such as Nery Castillo and Collins John appears to be gone.
This year, the Fire have centered on words such as "cohesiveness" and "winning," and the idea that everybody has bought into one philosophy.
Now that sounds all hunky-dory, but only those in the Fire locker room and front office truly know how smoothly everything is functioning behind the scenes. On the surface, the team's demeanor has to be an improvement compared to last year's disjointed team that included personality differences, style differences, injuries and fitness issues, players on the final legs of their playing careers, numerous signings that did not pan out and a new coach who was brought in so late that he missed the 2010 MLS Combine.
For a second straight offseason, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman and company undertook a major overhaul. Now, the question is whether the Fire feel they are ahead of last year's campaign, and if they have a functioning system in place to rebound from only their second playoff-less season in team history.
Four points and a 1-0-1 start to the 2011 season have brought some early optimism for the Fire.
"I've got my fingers crossed that we've tried to do as much as we could do in a relatively short preseason," Hauptman said last Thursday.
Last year was a self-evaluation lesson for everyone involved with the Fire, which posted a 9-12-9 record. Hauptman knows mistakes were made, but he and the Fire staff hold no remorse for taking some chances. It was just the manner in how their risk-taking was drawn out.
"You can't win without taking risks, and part of the challenge here is when you're working within the parameters of a salary cap, you have to sometimes take this on in ways that seem good on paper," Hauptman said. "I think one of the lessons we learned is it might be good on paper, but what kind of process needs to be in place in order to make sure the elements that are not what's on paper get covered? How do we evaluate those intangibles?"
Case in point last year was the midseason addition of designated player Castillo. On paper, Castillo appeared to be a bargain simply based on the coin he was earning from Shakhtar Donetsk and how high his stock was only a few years earlier in his mid-20s. But on the pitch, Castillo's lack of fitness was so glaring that De los Cobos should have pulled the plug earlier than he did.
"It was a risk," Hauptman said. "[The technical staff] came to me and said it would be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the cost to Shakhtar, who bought him for 20 million Euros and had to pay him significant dollars beyond that. Now look, it was a mistake. We shouldn't have done it. But we're always looking for that special player. Our first priority is how do we build the team that we think is built to win. That is our first priority, no matter where they come from or what their nationality is."
This year's Fire are trying to establish a new system and it is apparent that they have taken a few pages from teams that piece together winning franchises without the need of a designated player, instead using steadfast recruiting systems. Last year's MLS Cup featured the champion Colorado Rapids and runner-up FC Dallas, two franchises that did not have a DP on their roster. FCD is exemplary at recruiting south of the border, as evidenced by 2010 MLS MVP and Colombian David Ferreira.
"So far there is the negative correlation between those teams that have those iconic players and those teams that win," Hauptman said. "So far the data speaks for itself. It's not a big data set. We don't have that many years experience with it. But I don't think we look at it one way or the other. There are some clubs that look at it and say, 'We will not have a DP under any circumstances.' And there are other clubs that say 'We're all about getting the biggest DP possible, the biggest name. We don't care what the technical team says, but we're going to bring that iconic player.' I think we're kind of in the middle in the sense that if we can find the right opportunity, we'll do it."
Hauptman said that at no point in the offseason did he consider changes with his head coach De los Cobos or technical director Frank Klopas. Instead, a more rigorous approach was taken as Hauptman funded a scouting trip more expansive than in any other Fire offseason.
Now, Hauptman hopes the "stars align" in this new approach translating onto the field.
"I'm one of these guys that's very process-oriented," Hauptman said. "There's the process and there's the results. Sometimes you can have the results and the process can be pretty dysfunctional, and you're going to run into trouble at some point. Or vice versa. For me, I'm definitely the guy that would rather have the process right and feel comfortable with that process ultimately yielding results."