The Fire had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons at this time a year ago. But with a team featuring plenty of new faces and an early-season coaching change, the Men in Red missed the playoffs for the second straight year, falling just short of the postseason despite a torrid finish.
No player or coach would've used that lack of familiarity as an excuse for falling short of their goals. But it does serve as a fair explanation, especially in light of their 7-2-1 record over the final 10 games of the season. Under Frank Klopas, the team came together but ultimately was done in by the poor start that saw the team notch just two victories through mid-August.
If that momentum from last year's playoff push carries over, though, that playoff drought will be history.
"It's a lot more comfortable for the guys as opposed to last year," winger Patrick Nyarko said. "It helped because we didn't have to start from scratch, so it made it a lot easier."
Defender Cory Gibbs took it a step further.
"This is the year for no excuses," he said. "This is what we've asked for, the cohesiveness. We've kept everybody with the addition of two or three solid players. If we don't get it done this year, there's no reason for it, no excuses.
"We have all the elements in place, we just have to put it together."
Good vibrations are running rampant around Fire training heading into the club's home opener against Philadelphia on Saturday, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. Chicago came away from a rabid environment in Montreal last weekend with a point, drawing the Impact in the franchise's first-ever home match.
The Fire earned a draw thanks to an equalizing goal by Dominic Oduro, which was brilliantly set up by midfielder Sebastian Grazzini. The score was indicative of how far the Fire have come in the last year -- Oduro was acquired from Houston in an early-season trade last year while Grazzini joined the club in July. Months later, the pair's rapport paid off in the form of a key goal.
"That's a typical example of what happens when you play over time," said Gibbs. "That probably wouldn't have happened with them being together for just this season."
Of course, whatever success may be ahead for the Fire won't come just because the roster is more familiar with each other. Klopas would bristle at that suggestion.
"Everyone's gotta pay the price, the price has to be paid every frickin' day we come here to training," Klopas said emphatically. "If not, then we're not going to get better."
It's early in the season, so no matter where you go, there's going to be positivity. There's going to be high expectations. There's going to be an emphasis on hard work. But Klopas sees an emphasis on all that as his team working on something they can control.
"The ball hits the post, goes in, goes out, I mean, the theme can be no excuses but also for us, it can be to control the controllables," explained Klopas. "That's what we put into work every day, our attitude, our focus, our discipline. Those are the things that really matter, sticking together as a team. Because those we can control. All the other things, you know, it's a game."
This all may seem very rah-rah, but again, it's early. And there's a genuine belief among the Fire they can carry the momentum of 2011 into 2012 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.
"With the team we've built and knowing how it felt to win at the end of the year, we know what it takes," Nyarko said. "Guys are confident and absolutely positive we'll make the playoffs."