De Los Cobos a bust in Chicago

One penalty kick.

That is how close the Chicago Fire came to reaching the 2009 MLS Cup final. One kick from 12 yards away.

Now, instead of being 12 yards away from glory, the Fire sits 12 points out of the playoffs as a nightmare season devolves into a sorry mess made in large part by the club’s own leadership.

How did Chicago go from the brink of championship glory to missing the playoffs for just the second time in the club’s 13-year history? You can’t point the blame squarely at an ownership group that made a change that didn’t need to be made.

The Fire dumped Denis Hamlett for former El Salvador head coach Carlos De Los Cobos, promising a more attacking brand of soccer and insisting that 2010 would not be a rebuilding year. The club let go of a coach who reached the Eastern Conference final in both seasons in charge for a coach who has underperformed with a team boasting just as much talent.

Under De Los Cobos the Fire has shown flashes of attacking quality, but there isn’t a single thing you can point to that De Los Cobos has improved since taking over. Some of the same issues used against Hamlett continue to be an issue.

Take the team’s home form. Under Hamlett, the club was criticized for not entertaining at home and not being consistent enough. This year under De Los Cobos, the Fire boast a 3-3-6 record at Toyota Park, all three wins coming against teams out of playoff contention (New England, Philadelphia and Houston). Hamlett’s teams were criticized by some for not being offensive enough, but the current Fire has managed just 28 goals in 26 games, significantly less than the 83 goals in 60 regular season games managed by Hamlett’s Fire.

If anything, De Los Cobos has brought new problems to the Fire, such as a poor road record and porous defense (strong road form and stingy defenses were staples under Hamlett). De Los Cobos has also made some questionable personnel decisions, from forcing out veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch to the signing of Salvadoran midfield Julio Martinez, who was a bust and was cut loose in June.

No matter how you look at it, De Los Cobos’ hiring can only be seen as a failure. The Fire currently sits on 26 points, tied for the third fewest in MLS. Saturday’s loss to Seattle made it seven straight matches without a win (an 0-5-2 mark). All but one of those matches came after the Fire broke the bank to trade for Freddie Ljungberg and sign Nery Castillo.

The addition of two Designated Players was supposed to give Chicago the boost it needed to reach the playoffs. Instead of a revamped Fire, what we have seen in recent weeks is a team lacking offensive effectiveness or defensive organization.

If and when he does leave, and he could be tempted to bolt early to return to the El Salvador job he left behind sooner rather than later, De Los Cobos will leave behind a putrid record that includes an early exit in the U.S. Open Cup at the hands of USSF Division-2 side Charleston, a forgettable group stage exit from SuperLiga and even a goal-less and point-less performance in the club’s own exhibition tournament, the Sister Cities Cup.

De Los Cobos’ record looks even more damning when compared to the man he replaced. Former Fire head coach Denis Hamlett had two years to lead the Fire and in those two seasons he guided a team that boasted one of the best road records in the league and narrowly lost to the eventual MLS Cup champions in each of his two season’s in charge.

He also guided the Fire to the 2009 SuperLiga final, which the club lost in penalties. In other words, the Fire was a trophy contender under Hamlett and maintained the club’s lofty tradition of being a perennial contender.

The blame for the current Fire mess shouldn’t fall solely on De Los Cobos, but on the men who hired him and got rid of Hamlett. Fire owner Andrew Hauptman bought a club three years ago that had just two head coaches in its ten years of existence. Since Hauptman bought the Fire, the club has had three head coaches and is extremely likely to have a fourth coach on the sidelines when 2010 begins.

While Hauptman can be applauded for okaying the spending it took to bring in Ljungberg and Castillo, at some point he has to start facing some of the criticism and taking some of the blame for the fact that the Fire has gone from perennial trophy challenger and consistent winner before he arrived to inconsistent also-ran known more for instability than success.

In MLS, the most successful teams are the ones whose owners don’t meddle and do a good job if finding smart people to run their clubs and letting them do their jobs. That formula helped the Fire win consistently during its first decade, and if its second decade is going to be anywhere near as successful, Fire leadership had better learn a lesson from the mistake it made a year ago when it replaced Hamlett with De Los Cobos.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.