For the second straight season, the Fire is undergoing a major transition as training camp opens.
A year after playing its first nine games on the road because of the move to Toyota Park in Bridgeview, the Fire begins its first full season under new ownership this week -- and with a mostly new coaching staff to boot.
Denis Hamlett, an assistant to all three previous Fire coaches, has taken over as head coach after Juan Carlos Osorio's offseason departure to the New York Red Bulls. Hamlett retained goalkeeper coach Daryl Shore and brought in new assistants Mike Jeffries and Chris Armas, an on-field stalwart since the team's formation in 1998 and its captain the last five seasons.
The biggest leadership change, though, might be the hiring of Frank Klopas as technical director. While most of the top clubs around the world have technical directors, they are only recently becoming a factor in Major League Soccer.
''This happened a lot faster than I thought it would,'' said Klopas, a longtime Chicago resident who concluded his playing career in the Fire's first season and was head coach of the indoor Storm for two seasons. ''Most teams in MLS are starting to go in that direction, and I'm well-prepared for [the job]. I'm excited.''
Klopas' best playing years were in Greece, and he was on the 1994 U.S. World Cup team. He'll report to John Guppy, the Fire's president and general manager.
''Before, John did everything,'' Klopas said, ''so there was definitely a need [for the new position]. We've done a good job scouting within the United States, but my experience overseas will help us keep track of players there who might fit into our salary cap. I can build relations with the top clubs in the world, build relationships with player agents and start identifying the top younger college players within this country.''
An immediate priority will be determining this season's goaltender. Matt Pickens is out of contract and training with the English club Norwich City. Klopas and Guppy will try to sign him.
''Everybody's got to be realistic,'' Klopas said. ''We've got to obey the salary cap [now $2.1 million], and we want to work things out with Matt.''
Assuming that can be done, the Fire will have to get stronger in other areas after barely making the MLS playoffs last season. Klopas will be looking to build around midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco, whose midseason arrival was the main reason the Fire qualified for postseason play.
''He was phenomenal, a fantastic player, competitive,'' Klopas said. ''He made a big difference, and I'm looking forward to having him for the preseason.''
Klopas is looking for a goal scorer, and French forward Patrice Pancrate might be his main target. The Fire also could bring back former scoring leader Andy Herron, whose rights were reacquired in a trade with Columbus, but Herron is playing in Puerto Rico.
Armas is the biggest loss off last year's team, though forward Paulo Wanchope also retired, defender Jim Curtin was traded to Chivas USA and midfielder/defender Ivan Guerrero was lost to San Jose in the expansion draft.
After players take physicals today in Bridgeview, the team heads to Bradenton, Fla., for the first of three phases of camp. The other two sites haven't been announced, but the Fire is planning a series of matches in Mexico before the regular-season opener March 29 at Real Salt Lake.
The Fire begins the first of three phases of training camp Wednesday at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Here's the team's competitive schedule while there:
Saturday: vs. U.S. under-17 national team, 9 a.m.
Feb. 13: vs. Columbus Crew, 9 a.m.
Feb. 16: vs. Kansas City Wizards, 9 a.m.
Feb. 20: vs. Toronto FC , 9 a.m.