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Columnist
Fire's uncertainty likely to spark major changes
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/29/2010 1:49 PM

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There's a lot of uncertainty at Toyota Park these days.

Except this: For only the second time in the 13-year club history, the Fire will (almost) certainly miss the playoffs.

The underachieving team will see changes in the locker room. No surprise. That happens to championship teams, and the expansion draft means two faces are likely to go to Portland and Vancouver.

But keep in mind this organization declined to sign coach Denis Hamlett last year after he led them to two straight trips to the conference championship game. This club has fallen a long way since then.

The changes probably won't stop in the locker room, and speculation was rampant Saturday after the Fire (6-10-8, 26 points) lost to Seattle 1-0.

"I have the responsibility with what happened to the team," first-year coach Carlos de los Cobos said Monday morning. "I took the risk in the last minutes (of Saturday's game) trying to put all that we have to attack. Unfortunately, we (gave up) a goal, but I have the responsibility."

The club announced a paid crowd of 17,477, but it looked like many fans stayed home. The Fire is 3-3-6 at Toyota Park and even lost to the Charleston Battery there this season. That's not a way to entice a big crowd to spend its money.

It's disappointing that a team with the third-highest payroll in Major League Soccer, including Designated Players Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg, couldn't build on the excitement of the 2009 playoffs.

And it's only getting worse. Inconsistent most of the season, the Fire is winless in its last seven games. It hasn't scored a goal in 362 minutes.

"I hope there's changes," said former Fire player Diego Gutierrez, now an agent. "I truly hope there's changes. This is not what we're used to. This is not what the franchise is about."

The mood at practice Monday was as overcast as the Bridgeview skies. But the team then departed for today's game at San Jose (10 p.m. CLTV, Comcast SportsNet Plus) apparently intact.

"We need to try to have a good finish," de los Cobos said. "We have a responsibility and the commitment with our fans, with our club, with our jersey. We are excited to make a good match (Wednesday)."

Who will leave? And will they leave before the season ends Oct. 23 at Chivas USA or shortly after? Owner Andrew Hauptman holds the answers.

This is also an organization with a new president, Julian Posada, hired last week. What changes will the new boss make in the front office?

One more thing is certain: There are a lot of people on edge in Bridgeview.

Revisiting Busch: Fire captain C.J. Brown said the team's problems have been going on all season, but they don't trace back to the release of starting goalkeeper Jon Busch the week of the season opener.

Busch's release gave the starting job to second-year man Andrew Dykstra, who lost it after a couple of months to fourth-round rookie Sean Johnson who has been a revelation.

The Fire will face Busch today at San Jose.

"I like Busch, and we're good friends," Brown said. "You miss a guy like that, but I think Sean and Andrew have done well for us. The goals we're giving up aren't Sean or Andrew's fault. That's us as a team. We're not defending well on opportunities. We're giving goals away that are crushing us. If Busch were here he'd be just as frustrated."

Maybe so. Busch's release might not have caused the team's downturn, but it surely hinted at problems to come.

The future is now: Captain C.J. Brown said the Fire needs to win today. He's not interested in thinking about next season yet.

"Not right now," said Brown, 35. "Next year is a long way away. We have six games, so you've got to think game to game and try to win one game. The next game is obviously San Jose, and that's the one that's our focus. If you're thinking next year then we should all just pack up and rest for the next couple of months and get our heads (up). No. You've got to think about now, and now is San Jose."

The Yanks are coming: Ten days remain until the U.S. men's national team hosts Poland in a friendly at Soldier Field. No word on which players coach Bob Bradley will choose, but the heavy MLS schedule makes it likely many of the players will be called home from foreign clubs. Tickets are available at ussoccer.com or by calling (800) 745-3000.

oschwarz@dailyherald.com