The Fire hasnt finished work on its 2012 season yet, but the club already took its first big step towards preparing for 2013 on Wednesday with the signing of German defender Arne Friedrich.
Friedrich, 33, was the Fires Defender of the Year this season and made it clear in the waning days of the campaign that he wanted to play one more season in Bridgeview. He didnt have to do that. He undoubtedly would have had other options, but -- for whatever reason -- he didnt want to play across the pond again.
"This is what I told everybody in the past, before I came to America," Friedrich said after the Fire was eliminated from the Major League Soccer playoffs last week. "I would never again play in Europe.
He did plenty of that quite well in the past, as a member of Germanys third-place finishers in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals. He had 82 caps for Germany before playing his last match for Wolfsburg in his countrys Bundesliga.
Friedrich signed with the Fire on Mar. 7 and made 23 appearances in the 34 MLS regular season matches. His presence helped make Austin Berry, his central defender partner, a favorite for MLS Rookie of the Year. They were key players in helping the Fire limit opponents to 41 goals in 34 games. That tied the Fire for second-best defensively in the Eastern Conference.
Slowly but surely Javier Leon, the Fires president of soccer operations, will build a team for next season, but Friedrich is a good start. His signing might mean the departure of Cory Gibbs, who suffered a serious knee injury in the third game of the season and underwent surgery. He still isnt in full training, as his postseason workouts this week have been inside with a focus on fitness.
Leon, in a statement announcing Friedrichs re-signing, said "Building continuity at the center back position is a priority for 2013."
The quick re-signing of Friedrich was in sharp contrast to last season when another veteran, Mexican midfielder Pavel Pardo, didnt sign a new contract until January. Pardo, like Friedrich, was happy with his first season in MLS and made it clear he wanted to return for another season. The Fire wanted him, too. It just took longer for that to happen.
Friedrich sounds like hes planning to play just one more year, but thats always subject to change.
If this years back line of Friedrich, Berry, Jalil Anibaba and Gonzalo Segares remains intact, the Fire will be in good shape defensively for next season. The lineup in front of them might not resemble this years nearly as much, however.
The Fire needs an attacking, playmaking midfielder. The club did some winning after Sebastian Grazzini returned to Argentina after a midseason contract dispute but was never as good. Coach Frank Klopas did some lineup patching, but it didnt work in the last six matches when the Fire stumbled to a 1-4-1 finish (counting the season-ending 2-1 home loss to the Houston Dynamo in the Fires first postseason appearance since 2009).
Klopas will keep his players on hand for workouts through next Thursday, Nov. 15. Leon is also expected to make a visit from his offices in California as the offseason administrative work continues.
The Fire could lose a veteran or two in the MLS entry draft in early January and will add a player -- at least temporarily -- when the winner of the Dec. 14-15 open tryout in Bridgeview is chosen.
That player is guaranteed a week in the first phase of preseason training, expected to begin in Florida in mid-January. The MLS SuperDraft, on Jan. 17 in Indianapolis, will also bring some fresh talent to the camp.