You could forgive a Section 8 supporter for believing that Chicago Fire management had lost their mind. The 2007 season had started off poorly enough - the Fire had won only 4 of 16 matches and postseason qualification appeared impossible. At the time, MLS was still very much a kick-and-run league where athleticism shined, not technique. So, when the Fire announced they had signed 34 year old Club America castoff Cuauhtemoc Blanco, fans rolled their eyes. A publicity stunt? A brazen attempt to cater to the Mexican population? Was it chicano fans vs. Chicago fans?
The recently passed designated player rule, also known as the "Beckham rule," allowed Chicago to meet Blanco's salary demands. However, fans were suspicious. Weaned on workmanlike players, could Cuau's flare translate to MLS success? Would having a player earning millions per year upset the locker room balance? The results speak for themselves. The Chicago Fire were a team transformed. Cuau's four goals and seven assists spearheaded the Fire to the playoffs, qualifying on the last day of the season. He was a finalist for MVP honors and the Fire reached the conference finals before losing to New England.
How did he do it? Ever since getting
his leg broken in a World Cup qualifier vs. Trinidad and Tobago in 2000,
Blanco's game has revolved around anticipation, precision, and
understanding, not foot speed. He has the build of an overweight
accountant and hobbles around the field like Quasimoto, but his vision
and touch with both feet allow him to see and feed more athletic
teammates. At Club America, he was the chief provider for short and
shifty Paraguayan forward Salvador Cabanas. At Chicago, he made
competent and mobile forwards Chris Rolfe and Chad Barret look like
all-stars. Any concerns about locker room balance dissipated as Blanco's
silky smooth passes transformed his five-figure salary teammates into
goalscorers and winners.
After an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, fans eagerly anticipated the new season. A new benchmark had been set. Then, another curve ball from management: the Fire discarded promising young striker Chad Barrett and acquired 36 year old former USMNT forward Brian McBride. What? In a game of youths running to kick a ball, Chicago had again gone veteran. Not just veteran, borderline mid-life crisis.
McBride had thrived in his last few seasons at Fulham, scoring important goals to stave off relegation and keep them in the Premier League. However, how much gas could he have in the tank after playing in such a bruising league for so many years? Many US fans recall his bloody face versus Italy in the 2006 World Cup, but few knew that he had already had facial reconstructive surgery beforehand. More importantly, how would he gel with Blanco? The Mexican's patience and passing seemed at odd with McBride's power game of hard running and winning headers.
Sometimes, though, opposites compliment one another, they don't corrode. McBride's hold-up play and work rate allowed Blanco time on the ball, and the American's intelligent positioning also opened up space for Chris Rolfe and Calen Carr in the box. In truth, McBride often appeared to lazily cherry pick at the far post for long spells, but his positioning was essential - anywhere else, and he'd step on the toe of another forward or Blanco. By occupying a central defender at the far post, he left Blanco, Carr and Rolfe in a 3 vs. 3 situation. And they thrived.
Chicago Fire again reached the Eastern Conference finals, but this time
lost to the Columbus Crew in heartbreaking fashion. McBride notched an
early goal for a 1:0 lead at halftime, but the Crew staged a comeback,
knocking in two goals to advance to the MLS Cup final. However, it was
not all roses. To the shock of fans, Cuauhtemoc Blanco announced that he
would be playing that winter for Mexican club Santos Laguna, on loan
for the playoffs. Many worried - was he already homesick? Blanco had,
after all, left Spanish club Real Valladolid years earlier for that same
Blanco extended his contract with the Fire and returned for the 2009 MLS season, but many worried: how would a winter full of soccer, instead of rest, affect his aged legs? Not a single bit, that's how. Blanco and McBride again enjoyed fruitful seasons, the Fire made the playoffs, and faced a formidable Real Salt Lake side in the Eastern Conference Finals. The teams ended regulation and extra-time tied, and penalties beckoned. Who stepped up for Chicago's first kick? Cuau, of course. His deliberately long run-up was followed by a perfectly placed shot that dinged the cross bar and bounced in. McBride also scored. Their teammates were not so fortunate. John Thorrington, Logan Pause, and Brandon Prideaux all had their shots saved. RSL advanced, beat the Galaxy for the title, and left Chicago fans wondering "What if?"
Sadly, Blanco left
Chicago shortly thereafter for the backwaters of lower-division soccer
in Mexico. He still plays to this day. McBride grinded out another
season, but hung up his boots after 2010. The Fire didn't even qualify
for the playoffs that year. If the great Chicago fire of 1871 left a
city in ashes, then the exit of the Fire's aging stars left the city and
franchise in limbo. The promise of youth and drafts and prospects
beckoned, but Blanco and McBride had taught all fans that, as Sophocles
said, sometimes a "man growing old becomes a child again."
Elliott is the author of "Real Madrid & Barcelona: the Making of a Rivalry", available at iTunes for $5.99 here.
Picture via by deglispiriti .