Just about 2½ months ago Chicago Fire players sat morosely in their Crew Stadium locker room, having just lost the Eastern Conference championship game.
This weekend the players are reporting to Toyota Park for physicals.
"It was a tough pill to swallow, and obviously once the season starts we'll have to put that behind us," midfielder Justin Mapp said of that November loss in Columbus. "We were so close, 45 minutes away from being in (MLS) Cup. We just couldn't quite get over the hump. It's just more motivation for this year. With the same guys returning, we're looking forward to more good times."
The good times start Monday when the team heads to Florida for preseason training. The Fire opens the season March 21 at FC Dallas.
"I'm excited to get out of this cold, for one," coach Denis Hamlett joked Saturday. "All the guys are excited, the coaching staff is excited to get started again. It's an exciting part of the year."
The team returns all of its starters. Gone are reserve forwards Tomasz Frankowski and Andy Herron, let go for salary-cap reasons after a disappointing season for each. Defender Lider Marmol was allowed to return home to Paraguay, and midfielder Stephen King went in the expansion draft to Seattle Sounders FC. In their place and fighting for spots on the 24-man roster are four rookies, led by second-round draft pick Baggio Husidic, who played at Libertyville High School and Illinois-Chicago.
Back for another camp is veteran C.J. Brown, 33. Brown, who barely played in 2008 due to injury, said Saturday he has signed with the team for another season, though it has to go through the league office before it becomes official.
"I'm healthy as I can get," said Brown, who plans to push Wilman Conde and Bakary Soumare for a central defender spot.
"C.J. is a guy that I've known for many years, and C.J. when he finished in '07 was one of the better defenders. Unfortunately, he couldn't get healthy in '08, but I feel this year C.J. is going to come back and show us and show those guys, 'Look, it was a position that was mine. ... I'm going to come back and compete for it and push your guys, so be ready.' "
There will be a few players missing at the start of camp. Conde, a Colombian, is working through visa problems but is expected soon. Midfielder Marco Pappa is with the Honduran national team. Chris Rolfe, Jon Busch and John Thorrington were with the U.S. national team for Saturday night's friendly against Sweden and will stay in the U.S. camp through Feb. 8.
The Fire also added Mike Matkovich to the coaching staff, replacing Chris Armas as an assistant. Armas left the team to move closer to his family in New York. Matkovich has strong ties to the area, having been born in Naperville and founding the Chicago Magic, one of the top youth club's in the nation, in 1987. He coached in 2007 with Toronto FC and 2008 with Chivas USA.