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Mexican star Blanco ready for Fire

July 22, 2007|From the Associated Press

CHICAGO — As Chicago Fire coaches and executives talked over beers that night, anything seemed possible -- even signing Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

"We said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a limitless checkbook?' " General Manager John Guppy recalled of the fantasy draft the team held when Major League Soccer was considering a designated player rule that would allow teams to go beyond the salary cap to acquire high-profile players.

A year after that night out, fantasy has become reality for the Fire.

The rule passed in November, and Blanco agreed to a three-year deal in April that will guarantee him $2.7 million this year. After finishing the season with Mexico City's Club America and fulfilling commitments with the national team, he's ready to join the struggling Fire.

His on-field unveiling is scheduled for today, when Chicago hosts Scottish Premier League club Celtic FC. Though Blanco's debut may lack the spice of David Beckham's red-carpet arrival with the Galaxy, the Fire believes he will galvanize a Mexican community that ranks among the nation's largest, giving the franchise a boost in the bank book and a spark on the field.

The Mexican League most valuable player in 2004 and 2005, Blanco was slowed by injuries the last few years, but at 34, the forward remains one of the game's top playmakers.

"I know people questioned my play after I got injured [in 2006]," he said. "I don't think that those questions exist now. I feel great, my body is in good form. I'm ready to play for Chicago."

He's joining a team at the bottom of the standings and one that's starting over -- just like him.

The franchise has changed coaches and is in the process of switching owners. AEG has a preliminary agreement in place to sell its stake in the franchise to Los Angeles-based Andell Holdings.

Though the new face of the organization is one of Mexico's most popular athletes, he also has a history of clashing with coaches, referees and opponents.

That history includes the Blanco bounce at the 1998 World Cup in France, where he hopped past two defenders with the ball between his ankles. There was the time a year later when he simulated a dog urinating in the goal after he scored against Atletico Celaya. And in 2004, he was blamed for causing a riot by elbowing a Brazilian player during a game in Mexico City.

There was also the time in 1999 when Blanco celebrated a goal against CF Atlas by lying down in front of Coach Ricardo Lavolpe, who got some payback by leaving him off the 2006 World Cup roster.

Lavolpe said Blanco just didn't fit the scheme. Blanco responded by warning the coach -- through a Mexican newspaper -- that fans "may go and look for you at your house and cause problems with your family, and that's why I hope it goes very, very well for you."

The Fire sees Blanco in the mold of other athletes with attitude -- think Dennis Rodman and A.J. Pierzynski -- who have been embraced in Chicago.

"To add somebody who's a lightning rod for attention, I think it only helps grow the profile of the Chicago Fire in the community," Guppy said.

With Blanco in town, Fire executives envision jerseys flying off the racks and seats filling up at Toyota Park, their home in suburban Bridgeview.

And they saw the excitement at Soldier Field last month during the final two rounds of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, when Blanco was in town with Mexico's national team.

Team chants and the buzz of noisemakers were a virtual soundtrack, and the Mexican flag was everywhere. Some fans wore masks, but most were in jerseys, many with Blanco's name and No. 10.

They can't wait to catch a glimpse of their superstar.

Eduardo Sanchez of suburban Alsip bought a Blanco Fire jersey and showed up for the Gold Cup with his wife -- decked out in Blanco's yellow Club America jersey -- and three young children.

"Wherever he goes, I go too," Sanchez said of Blanco.

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