Can Blanco ignite the Fire?

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Cuauhtemoc Blanco's Chicago Fire teammates had heard tales of the kind of adulation their Mexican colleague received in his homeland, but nothing could have prepared them for the scenes of hero worship they witnessed on a preseason trip south of the border.

The Fire spent three weeks in Mexico to get ready for the 2008 Major League Soccer campaign, and everywhere they went, Blanco was greeted with an extraordinary reception.

"It was incredible," midfielder Logan Pause said. "Until you are in the thick of it and see just what a legend he is, you can't begin to comprehend it.


Chicago Fire
Chicago Fire

2007 RECORD:
10-10-10 (40 points), fourth in Eastern Conference, seventh overall. Lost to New England in Eastern Conference final.

KEY MAN: Cuauhtemoc Blanco. His legs are going, but he still possesses remarkable skill and, more importantly, a fierce desire to succeed. Blanco is as entertaining to watch as he must be infuriating to play against, and he has the ability to single-handedly change the outcome of games.

NEWCOMER: Patrick Nyarko. The Virginia Tech forward turned pro after his junior season and was widely tipped to be taken first overall in the draft. However, a preference for Generation adidas players (who do not count against the salary cap) pushed him down to No. 7. He looks MLS ready and could be a future star.

OUTLOOK: Coach Hamlett will want to instill more consistency this season and has every right to feel bullish about his team's chances. Even if the regular season does not go completely to plan, Blanco's big-game brilliance will make the Fire capable of taking out any team come playoff time.

"It was bizarre to see grown men and women screaming. People were chasing our bus and banging on the windows. But the great thing about him is how receptive he is to it all. He signs as many autographs as he can."

In Chicago, Blanco is regarded as the talismanic figure who has been handed the responsibility for carrying the Fire to an MLS title.

But in Mexico, where soccer is an all-consuming national obsession and more religion than sport, he is afforded God-like status.

His move to the United States seems to have done little to diminish his popularity at home, as the Chicago players saw first-hand.

Part of Blanco's mystique is in his rags-to-riches tale, from growing up in the slums of Mexico City to becoming an international star and veteran of two World Cups.

"He grew up in the barrio," Pause added. "He went from nothing to making it as a huge soccer star, and that is part of why people love him so much.

"From our point of view it is interesting to see how the people in Mexico regard him, but the best thing for us is to have him available from the start of the season."

The most noticeable change at Toyota Park this season will be at the top. Former coach Juan Carlos Osorio left to take over the New York Red Bulls and Denis Hamlett was promoted as his replacement.

Having added Polish striker Tomasz Frankowski, the Fire are looking in solid shape heading into Saturday's opener at Real Salt Lake.

"Denis Hamlett brings stability," Pause said. "He deserves this chance and he has earned it. He bleeds Chicago Fire red after being part of this club for 10 years.

"We were disappointed not to reach the MLS Cup final last season and our mindset this year is not to sit back and wait for the playoffs. We want to make a statement right from the beginning."

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