"Don't ask me!"

"Don't ask me!"

“It doesn’t make any sense.”  That’s what Jon Busch told me he was thinking after he learned he was waived by the Chicago Fire a little over a week ago.  It was also the sentiment of most Fire fans when they heard the news last week that the man who started every MLS game in goal for their team the last two seasons, who was the team MVP and League Goalkeeper of the Year two seasons ago, and was one of the fans’ favorite players was being released less than a week before before the MLS opener.

The question on everyone’s mind was why?

Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas said it was simply a matter of second year pro Andrew Dykstra having a better pre-season than Busch to earn the job.  Fans of the popular goalkeeper who loved playing in front of Section 8 couldn’t believe it was as simple as that, so conspiracy theories started popping up.

I’ve been where Frank Klopas, the Fire’s Technical Director, is now and I know it can be very difficult, but necessary, to let go of a player who has given his all, been successful and is loved by the team’s supporters.  After the 2002 season, the Chicago Fire was more than $1 million over the salary budget and we had to move four of the team’s most popular – and highest paid - players: Hristo Stoitchkov,  Dema Kovalenko, Josh Wolff and the hardest of all, Peter Nowak.  The off season moves were made on the heels of losing Head Coach Bob Bradley to the MetroStars.  New Head Coach Dave Sarachan and I were roundly, and understandably, chastised by Fire fans for trading four of our greatest stars for a few draft picks and an untested Nike Project 40 player.

I responded by writing an open – and as transparent as possible – letter to Fire fans explaining how we got in the situation, why we made those moves and where we planned to go from that point.  The letter started:

Dear Fire Fans,

I would like to take this opportunity to explain the Chicago Fire’s recent moves and try to address any concerns you may have about the Fire going forward. The Fire had an embarrassment of riches over the last several years – we had assembled more talent than any MLS team has ever had. Last year, many players deferred salaries, gave up bonuses or hadn’t reached their salary potential, which allowed the Fire to stay under the League salary budget for the 2002 season. This year, everything kicked in at the same time resulting in the quantum leap of salaries sending the Fire more than $1,000,000 over the salary budget.

Even with the pending move of Hristo Stoitchkov, the trades of Dema Kovalenko and Josh Wolff, along with several players taking pay cuts this year, we were STILL significantly over the limit, resulting in the unthinkable trade of our captain and leader Peter Nowak. Unfortunately, the only real alternatives to trading any of those four in order to get under the salary budget included trading Carlos Bocanegra or Chris Armas, which we refused to do for the following reasons.

We believe that Carlos and Chris can help the Fire compete for more championships for years to come while Peter and Hristo would likely only give the Fire one more year. Josh had requested a trade knowing that the Fire could only afford to keep him or Ante as a maximum salaried forward and his injury history meant he felt that he needed a fresh start with another team. Dema is another player that we did NOT want to trade, but given the option of trading him, Carlos or Chris, we believe we made the best move for the Fire and our fans.

I am more frustrated and torn about losing Peter than anyone could be with the exception of Peter himself. We exhausted all options including naming him a player/assistant coach in order to shave some money off the player budget, but it was still not possible to keep him and keep the team under the salary budget. Any alternatives would have resulted in crippling the team…

The full letter and fans’ reaction to the letter can be read here.

The 2002-03 experience has several parallels to Busch’s release.  Both involved moving popular players.  Both involved transitions to younger players.  Both were done under new head coaches and both involved fans believing there must be ulterior motives behind the moves.

While the Busch release was not as impactful as the 2002-03 off season slaughter, it still hit a nerve with many fans.  Klopas’ explanation did not seem to resonate with many fans – or Busch.  While Klopas said Dykstra beat Busch out in pre-season, Dykstra hardly played in the preseason and didn’t play any MLS games his rookie season.  A shoulder injury limited him to less than two games in preseason – giving up one goal in 40 minutes vs. Vancouver and one goal in a full 90 vs. Houston.  He didn’t participate in the team’s extended camp in Mexico. And even if Dykstra did beat Busch out, why not keep the veteran around as insurance and a mentor?

Well, the conspiracy theorists of soccer have come up with a number of potential, though all unconfirmed Busch-Whacker theories:

1. BUSCH CONFRONTS KLOPAS: After Busch was informed of the decision to start Dykstra in the Fire’s opener in New York, he went upstairs to the Fire’s offices in Toyota Park and voiced his displeasure to Klopas.  This theory has de los Cobos questioning whether the veteran could be a good soldier and support Dykstra as a backup leading to his release the next day.

Klopas’ comment on ESPN 540′s “Soccer Saturday” Presented by the Milwaukee Wave” indicates he believed Jon would struggle in a reserve role: “We felt that making that decision that (Andrew’s) going to be our number one goalkeeper, we needed to support him and we needed people around him to support him,” Klopas said.  “Jon needed a situation where he wanted to play.”

Busch says he did go from his meeting with de los Cobos where he was told he wasn’t starting in New York directly to Klopas’ office.  But he says he was calm considering the circumstances and agreed to support Andrew and work hard to earn the number one spot back.  “I met downstairs with Carlos where I said ‘OK, I’m very disappointed, but I’m not going to be a problem child.  Let’s get through New York and I’ll do whatever you need me to do.  I’ll come back and work hard,’” he told me.

“I then told him I’m going to talk to Frank.”  Busch walked up to Klopas’ office and asked the Ring of Fire legend “‘Frank, what’s going on? I can’t agree with the decision.  I played every game for two years.  I had a great preseason.’ I questioned his reasons.  All he told me was that Andrew has potential and Carlos likes to take risks. Frank said ‘That’s what Carlos wants.  I’m going to have coffee with Carlos and talk to him about it.’  I told Frank that I want to stay and fight for my job.  I’m confused,” Busch said.  The next day Busch went from #2 to the waiver wire.  “How did it change in 24 hours?” Busch asked Klopas.  “Is it the budget?  Frank said no.”

2. THE NEW CBA: The newly negotiated MLS CBA is certainly a tremendous victory for both the owners and players due to the timing of the settlement, the benefits achieved by both parties and the sense of partnership that resulted from the generally amiable talks.  In any agreement that results in new policies, however, there will be unintended consequences and despite Klopas’ claims to the contrary, there is reason to believe that Busch’s employment may be one of those.  The new CBA provides guaranteed contracts for all MLS players age 24 or older with three or more years of service including Busch.  Busch’s newly guaranteed contract was believed to be close to $150,000 in 2010.  Klopas denied Busch’s release was due to the budget, however.

3. ANOTHER GOALKEEPER IS COMING: Some people thought the Fire may have wanted to free up budget room for another player.  That cap room could be used, the theory goes, later this year to sign another goalkeeper such as, Salvadoran international Miguel Montes.  Good sources indicate that the Fire has cap room available however and no interest in Montes. Klopas vehemently denies interest in Montes, so perhaps the extra cash could be used on…

4. A NEW FIELD PLAYER: De los Cobos has reportedly not been pleased with the pace of defender Krzysztof Krol, who was acquired on loan in the off season and de los Cobos recently told the Daily Herald that he plans to sign Salvadoran left back Deris Umanzor soon. “He’s coming,” he told Orrin Schwarz.  The Fire could sign Umanzor using Busch’s salary for the Salvadoran left back.  But again, the Fire actually had the room already to sign him and Klopas specifically said the release was not due to the team’s salary budget.

Klopas and new Fire Head Coach Carlos de los Cobos both steered conversation away from the theories above as contributing factors and instead focused on the opportunity to promote the inexperienced Dykstra.

“This decision was not made because we’re bringing someone else in. That’s inaccurate,” Klopas told MLS Insider. “This decision was not made because the players’ union came to an agreement on the CBA. This decision was made over the course of time in preseason.”

Frank elaborated last Saturday on “Soccer Saturday” when he told me:

“When we first signed Andrew a year ago, we believed he had the potential to be the goalkeeper of the future.  Has a tremendous presence when u see him on the field, he’s 6’4”, very athletic, he’s very quick.  The few games that he did play, he was a goalie that was very composed, made very good decisions, he made the saves that needed to be made to keep you in games, but also a guy that was a guy for the big moment.  It didn’t phase him. He didn’t show any fear.

“We have the utmost respect for Jon.  He’s a guy that’s done a lot not only for the Fire, but someone who’s been in the League many years and those are not easy decisions.

“[It's] Unfortunate that we had to make some quick decisions. It was best to try to help Jon move along if we could find a team, but in the short time of the CBA being announced it was going to be very difficult, we made a decision at that time to put him on waivers and give him an opportunity to see if he can get picked up and go somewhere and if there was an opportunity for him to play, because we made a decision to go with Andrew. We all believe he’s ready and has the potential to be a great goalkeeper.”

Sometimes the truth is not as interesting as the theories, so people enjoy thinking of nefarious alternatives.  Regardless of conspiracy theories, time marches on for all parties. And all parties will likely be better off in the long run:

  • Jon Busch: While the timing of the move  likely cost the 33-year old a starting role with another MLS team and a chance to earn the type of money he was scheduled to make in Chicago, Busch did sign earlier this week with the San Jose Earthquakes where he’s expected to provide depth to Joe Cannon.  “It will be a fun challenge,” Busch said.  “I’m excited about it.”  And Busch holds no ill will to his successor, “I even texted Andrew before the game to wish him good luck in his first MLS game.  It has nothing to do with him,  he is a good kid.”
  • Andrew Dykstra: His christening by fire, so to speak, was last Saturday at Red Bull Arena’s MLS debut.  Dykstra faced three shots.  He gave up one goal, dropped — then recovered — a second shot and saved a third.  He has his teammates and coaches confidence, tremendous physical gifts and he will have support from incredibly loyal fans.  Like Zach Thornton in 1998 and many other goalkeepers, Dykstra is getting his chance and will have great support to achieve success.
  • Chicago Fire: The Fire’s first game in the post-Busch era was a 1-0 loss that provided glimmers of hope in a disappointing result.  De los Cobos used the opportunity to speak philosophically about playing beautiful in a loss sometimes being more important than winning ugly.  He, too, will have time and great support to achieve success.

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