Chicago Fire revamps team for 2011
Recruiters bring on young players looking to spark a winning season.
The Chicago Fire isn’t exactly setting soccer fields ablaze this season. Five weeks in, the team has posted a losing record. But there are a few glowing embers of promise: This year’s revamped squad is deep with hungry, young new players with some compelling stories.
Take forward Gaston Puerari. In 2007, he was playing part-time for a semiprofessional club in Paysandú, Uruguay, while working in a meatpacking plant. He’s now living up to his nickname, the Butcher, with slashing runs and tireless hustle for the Fire. New addition Gabriel Ferrari is a 22-year-old American wunderkind who gained buzz as a regular forward for U.S. national youth teams. But he had trouble getting field time when he went to play in Italy. The Fire is hoping he can jump-start the offense as well as his pro career.
The Rudy-esque underdogs are a drastic departure for the Fire. Last season, the team spent big bucks on a few former stars in hopes of fortifying a squad that had come achingly close to MLS Cup Finals in ’08 and ’09. The gambit didn’t pay off. Players like veteran strikers Nery Castillo and Brian McBride couldn’t recapture their bygone magic, and the Fire was shut out of the postseason for only the second time in its history.
Coming into its 14th season this year, the team cleaned house, cutting ties with 11 players to begin rebuilding. Big changes were also made to the way it recruited talent. The technical staff toured four continents, placing a premium not on name recognition but on players with the right mind-set; the staff evaluated a prospect’s on-field skill and followed up with face-to-face interviews. “You want quality players but also quality individuals,” says the Fire’s technical director, Frank Klopas, who oversees the recruitment efforts. The result is 17 new players (out of 30 roster spots) hailing from seven countries.
Klopas didn’t have to look far to find newbie Pari Pantazopoulos, 22. In 1998, he moved with his family from Athens, Greece, to Chicago at the age of ten, and immediately began attending Fire games. He quickly became a fan of Klopas, a fellow Greek who played in the club’s first two seasons. After graduating from high school in Mount Prospect, Pantazopoulos played in Cyprus and Greece, returning to Chicago last year to be closer to family and friends.
“I came back and thought, I wonder what the Fire is up to,” he says. He checked the club’s website and saw an announcement of an open tryout over the winter. The winner was only supposed to be offered a chance to join the Fire’s preseason training camp, but Pantazopoulos impressed the staff so thoroughly while beating out more than 200 other hopefuls that, in early April, the team extended a full professional contract.
Motivated, determined young no-names like Pantazopoulos embody the new Chicago Fire. In the wake of last season’s jarring lineup turnover, veteran midfielder and captain Logan Pause reports spirits are high. “There are no more egos,” Pause says, although he won’t name the specific ego-trippers. “Younger players internalize less.”
For Pantazopoulos, playing for his boyhood team has been a dream come true. While he hasn’t yet broken into the starting lineup, he says he’s still as excited as the day he picked up the phone and found out he made the team. The family he came back to the city for is ecstatic as well. “All my cousins,” he says, “can’t wait to play [the soccer video game] FIFA with me in it!”
Join Chicago Fire supporters Saturday 30 at 8pm for a watch party at the Globe Pub (1934 W Irving Park Rd, 773-871-3757) as the team takes on the Colorado Rapids. The Fire returns home to Toyota Park May 7 against the Vancouver Whitecaps.