Chicago ended the year as potentially the best non-playoff team in MLS.  They caught “fire” and had a winning record for the final third of the season, almost stealing the tenth playoff spot from New York.  The same team that set the MLS record for draws in a season (which they tied with NY) gave interim head coach Frank Klopas the full time job this offseason based on their excellent finish.  Dominic Oduro finally lived up to his promised to finish with double digit goals while newcomers Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo were veritable finds.  Looking forward to 2012, the team looks like it could make a jump in the standings if it can carry over the momentum.

What do the Fire need to do to make the playoffs in 2012?  Chicago is up next in our “3 Questions” series.

1. Who will Klopas bring back from his European scouting trip?

Frank Klopas made a highly-publicized trip to Europe a few weeks back to search for, in his words, a midfielder and a striker.  He was looking for another forward to pair up front with Dominic Oduro as well as build a working relationship with La Liga’s Atletico Madrid.  This is a critical trip, as his depth up front may be thinner than when he left.  Diego Chaves has been in the media saying that he wants out and, while he underperformed last season, he was at least a viable threat up front.  Israeli youngster Orr Barouch was signed away from his Israeli club but he is not yet an every day performer that the team needs to make that next step.  Patrick Nyarko is more of a wing player and not as much a compliment to Oduro.  Kheli Dube, selected in the Re-Entry Draft, is depth and not a full-time starter.

The rumors have been flying about potential names, and the name(s) Klopas can come up with will be critical to this team’s success.  If they can find another forward or CAM to fit Klopas’ system, this could be a very dangerous team.

2. Sean Johnson: will he be a better keeper for the Fire in December 2012 than he was in December 2011?

There are two parts to this question.  The first is: will Sean Johnson be with the Fire next year?  He’s training with Everton currently and, while the Toffees have a decent keeper you may have heard of, Johnson may catch the eye of a European club looking for a new long-term solution in net.  This is however the curse of an MLS team with young talent.

The bigger question is whether he takes the next step and becomes a dominant MLS keeper.  Like DC’s Bill Hamid, Johnson has all of the tools to be the next great keeper but needs to improve his decision-making and leadership.  With the call-up to the national team, he certainly will be able to train with the best America has to offer and should be a much more polished keeper this time next season.  At least Fire fans should hope so.

They have no choice.  Their back-up is Jay Nolly.

3. Can the Fire recreate the magic of August and September 2011?

Luck was a lady dating the Fire last year.  Oduro finally began converting those chances he created, and Nyarko and Barouch grew up.  The overseas midseason acquisitions performed as well as could be expected.  Even the interim coach who had never been a head coach at the MLS level before made all the right moves.  The question this offseason is can Chicago retain the magic that made that run possible.  Can they acquire the right players without upsetting the balance of personalities?

More importantly, can they keep the joyous play they maintained last season? After their shocking 2-1 victory at DC United last year, I went to the locker room to interview Frank Klopas, and the atmosphere went beyond happy about a win.  It was CYO level of fun, just plain joy with the game.  This joy, this fun with the game, is hard to maintain over a season but to capture a little of it at key times will help Chicago make a run in the playoffs.