Fire welcome back old friend, trade for Soumare

Fire welcome back old friend, trade for Soumare
May 23, 2013, 9:15 pm
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Len Ziehm

The Fire may still have 24 games left in its so-far disappointing season, but the club has finally started to have doubts about the availability of central defender Arne Friedrich. Thursday’s acquisition of Bakary Soumare is an indication of that.

Friedrich, a former World Cup player for Germany, was great in his first Major League Soccer season in 2012. He was a key ingredient in the Fire returning to the playoffs after a two-year absence, and he planned 2013 as his farewell season.

The Fire obliged, signing him shortly after the season ended. Friedrich reported to training camp late, suffered a hamstring injury in the final days of the preseason, returned to Germany for treatment by his favorite rehab doctor, returned to Chicago and trained briefly before getting hurt again. His return is now indefinite, and the Fire – with a 2-7-1 start – is 11 points off the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s a big hill to climb.

Though lack of offensive punch has been the team’s main problem, the acquisition of the 6-4 Soumare will help – starting with the next match. The Fire will be without right back Wells Thompson, himself a converted midfielder, on Saturday at Real Salt Lake. With Soumare available coach Frank Klopas can return Jalil Anibaba to the right side, play Soumare in the middle with Austin Berry and count as usual on Gonzalo Segares on the left.

Soumare is no mystery guest, as far as the Fire is concerned. He was the club’s first-round pick (second overall) in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft. After just two seasons at the University of Virginia he earned an MLS Rookie of the Year nomination in 2007. In 2008 he was a member of the MLS Best 11 and in 2009 an MLS All-Star.

His development was a big reason the Fire reached the Eastern Conference final – one game short of the MLS Cup final – in both 2008 and 2009.

During the 2009 campaign, however, he was involved in a lockerroom incident with then head coach Denis Hamlett. When that season ended Hamlett’s contract wasn’t renewed – despite the two strong playoff showings – and Soumare headed overseas. He played in 65 matches, some wearing the captain’s armband, for Boulogne of the French first division and made seven more appearances with Karlsruher after being loaned to that German side.

When Peter Nowak, the Fire’s first captain, landed the head coaching job with the expansion Philadelphia Union he negotiated a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS allocation order. He used the better drafting spot to pick Soumare.

All was well in Philadelphia until Nowak was fired early last season and Soumare found himself playing behind Jeff Parke. He didn’t like that and requested a trade early this season. Soumare played the last four matches for the Union while Parke recovered from an injury, and two were 1-0 wins over the Fire.

With Parke back Soumare became expendable and the Fire – in bad need of immediate help – was delighted to get him in exchange for its second-round pick in the next SuperDraft and an undisclosed amount of allocation money.

"We’re delighted to have Bakary rejoin the Fire,’’ said Javier Leon, president of Andell Sports which operates the club for owner Andrew Hauptman. "We know Bakary considers Chicago to be his home and we’re happy to welcome him back to the Fire family.’’

Soumare, who has made 13 appearances for his native Mali during breaks from his club teams, was happy to return to Chicago and reluctant to discuss the incident that led to both his and Hamlett’s departure.

"Whatever happened in the locker room is in the past,’’ Soumare said after the trade was announced. "It has nothing to do with my personality. As far as being on the field, I’m the same player. I bring tenacity. I bring a lot of bite.’’

There’s still the matter of blending in to do with his former team after playing against the Fire in its last two matches. There will also be some talks to clear the air with Klopas. The deal, though, is something the Fire had to do to shake its slow start. More moves might be needed, too.

"I’m glad it’s finally done,’’ said Soumare. "It’s a new chapter, and I’m really looking forward to it.’’