Imagine one of the key stone players for a club becoming its General Manager. He would be a decent to good player in the League, and acquire talent that many others would not recognize over a decade after his retirement. Then while the Chicago Fire are in a deep funk with only 4 points in last five and win-less since match day two, he fires the head coach and takes over the coaching reigns? Would you trust that man to lead the organization in all soccer related facets? Hot Time In Old Town exchanges three questions previewing the Fire hosting the Seattle Sounders.
SaH: Trust in Klopas, what has he done to earn that trust? Do you trust him as a permanent coach?
Hot Time In Old Town: The more popular terminology in Chicago is ‘In Klopas We Trust' but the meaning certainly is the same. The trust extended to Frank Klopas starts with the fact that his Chicago story is a story similar to many other Chicagoans. His family chose to move to the metropolis of the Midwest when Klopas was 8 years old. Klopas led Mather High School(located near one of my favorite parts of the city where a stretch of Devon Avenue has several blocks of all Indian businesses before flowing right into a couple of blocks of all Pakistani businesses and then there's even a block or two of all Orthodox Jew business)'s soccer team to the Chicago Public League championship in his senior year. He then was signed by the NASL Chicago Sting and played for the MISL Chicago Sting until 1988. While enjoying a successful club career in Greece, Klopas was part of the 1994 USMNT team. He joined MLS in its inaugural season in 1996 and demanded to play for Chicago when the Fire were created in 1998.
In the Fire's first home game, Klopas scored the only two goals of the game in front of the 36,444 people that came out to Soldier Field. Klopas would only score 6 more goals that year but none was more important than the one on October 30, 1998 when he scored the Golden Goal that beat Columbus 2-1 overtime in the U.S. Open Cup Final. The Fire had won the MLS Cup just five days earlier so his goal secured ‘The Double'. It also meant that not only did Frank Klopas score the first home goal in team history but he scored the first and last goals at Soldier Field in the 1998 season. That kind of success and that kind of hometown pedigree will give a person a large reputation for ‘Trust In'.
These days it goes beyond that as Frank Klopas has served well in his time as technical director. Klopas is the one who scouted and brought in Marco Pappa on a loan. When Wilman Conde looked absolutely certain to leave the Fire for almost any other club, it was Frank Klopas who somehow figured out a way to get him to stay on for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Klopas has drafted well stealing Sean Johnson with the 51st pick in the 2010 MLS Draft and he has picked other players throughout the draft that contribute as opposed to many teams that only get production from their top picks.
Klopas' talent acquisition has really been put to the test this year as only 14 players returned to the Fire at the same time that MLS team rosters were expanding to 30 roster spots. Teams like Real Salt Lake were ‘tweaking' things and adding reinforcements while Chicago was just trying to get enough players to fill out the bench. So far the talent has been very positive with players like Uruguayan Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari who make less than $50,000 each. Supersub Orr Barouch was plucked from Mexico's Tigres UANL youth system and might be the only player to have scored in MLS, U.S. Open Cup, and Reserves League action. Dominic Oduro has three goals for Chicago and he was traded for Calen Carr, a guy who has been plagued by concussion problems and hasn't played a game for Chicago or Houston all year. Yamith Cuesta has become a solid starting CB and he was acquired from Chivas USA for a 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft pick; most MLS Supplemental Draft picks didn't even make the 30 man roster this year. The list goes on.
Only Mike Banner, Logan Pause, Dasan Robinson, and Gonzalo Segares precede Frank Klopas' time as technical director. Even Gonzalo Segares left to play in Cyprus before the 2010 season only to have Frank Klopas figure out a way to bring him back into the fold. Banner has been injured all year. Robinson is a veteran defensive sub and Logan Pause is the captain. I think anyone who was out of the loop before should now understand the natural transition of Klopas from technical director to interim coach. He knows the players better than anyone else right now. He had the vision to bring them in.
As for trusting that vision to translate into success now that he is moving the Xs and Os? I'm not so sure. Klopas' coaching record is limited to an assistant coaching gig with the Chicago Fire in 2000 and coaching Major Indoor Soccer League's Chicago Storm for the 2004-2005 & 2005-2006 seasons to a sub-.500 level. It's easy to get excited about a change in coach when you stare at the 1-4-6 record but it's hard to be giddy when you look at Frank Klopas' resume. One thing I am confident in is that Klopas will continue to ride out the coaching job if the team is doing well but he will be the first one to start making some phone calls to guys like Jesse Marsch, Eric Wynalda, Chris Armas and C.J. Brown if he is losing. I doubt Klopas will dig himself a hole when he can go back to his technical director's chair. In Klopas I trust to do the right thing for the direction of the team.
DC: How will the Fire deal with the loss of Marco Pappa for the Gold Cup?
HTiOT: Marco Pappa playing every minute of every MLS game so far this year has been a bit of a blessing and a curse. He is not very defensively minded and he is not much of a creator for his teammates. There is some debate right now in Chicago Fire Country that Pappa is best suited to play forward - interestingly enough the position that Guatemala called him up for in Gold Cup play. Instead of Marco Pappa attempting to barrel through (and sometimes being successful) two or three defenders, the teammates might develop give and go passes to move up the field. Instead of the ball going to the left wing and it being Marco Pappa time, the Fire might discover some interesting things they never even knew about themselves. Instead of having Marco Pappa's four goals in 11 games, his replacement might score zero goals and be the equivalent of an offensive ghost on the field.
It is an unknown situation but it could come out quite positive. I'm comparing it to a basketball player who injures their dominant dribbling/shooting hand. Sometimes there is improvement when one is forced to expand their game and move beyond the comfort zone. Players like Diego Chave, Christian Nazarit, Gaston Puerari, and Orr Barouch look hungry up top while Corben Bone, Daniel Paladini look hungry in the midfield and Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko could be a speedy tandem on the wings. The talent is there to survive the loss of Marco Pappa. We'll see how it plays out.
DC: Probably hard to answer with the coaching change, but is the Sean Johnson era back?
HTiOT: I'm going to go out on a limb and say the Sean Johnson era is certainly back. Frank Klopas is very hesitant to commit to just about anything but don't forget Klopas drafted Sean Johnson. Klopas also has his technical director job to save in the long run. Johnson is a raw 22 year old goalkeeper with tons of talent. It is in the best long-term interest of the Chicago Fire to develop Sean Johnson into a MLS force to be reckoned with. Jon Conway has not been giving much reason to keep in the lineup anyway. If Frank Klopas goes with Conway over Johnson, people will be demanding a new head coach. I'll be right there with them as a fan who wants to see the Chicago Fire return to elite ways.
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HotTimeInOldTown: One of the players we discussed when Chicago and Seattle squared off in early April was Mike Fucito. I'm starting to hear a little more about him. How has he been doing and is he living up to your expectations?
Well, I'm clearly biased as I have being up this fanbase to be pro-Fucito for some time. Fake Sigi even calls it the Church of Fucito. That implies faith, rather than reason, and watching him succeed in practices, scrimmages, CCL and Reserve games in the past he's created a fanbase that is slightly disappointed in that he did not net a goal in his past two matches (both starts).
What he did though was create a majority of the offense against FC Dallas (offense without goals) against a stronger, taller centerback in George John (now getting a look by Greece for national team duty). He didn't do that just through speed, but through taken advantage of a lower center of gravity. Fucito continued that against one of the top defenders in the league against Real Salt Lake. Jamison Olave wasn't just turned a few times, but was out-bodied as well. Fucito got in his head through an early aggressive Yellow card and when Fucito was sprung and Olave turned Jamison arm tackled him and earned the famous "last man" Red. Fucito didn't finish the game, but this was likely part of a pregame strategy as the two matches were mere days apart and Mike hadn't started an MLS match before, let alone gone back-to-back on short rest.
HTiOT: It is an unfortunate fact that Chicago is one of the few teams that played Seattle when Steve Zakuani was healthy. In that game Zakuani burned Fire RB Jalil Anibaba on the wing and scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal. How has Seattle's game plan changed without Zakuani in the lineup and is there another potential mismatch you see on the field this Saturday ala Anibaba/Zakuani back in April?
DC: Seattle has transitioned from a speed on the flanks team to running a more narrow diamond, this was due to the additional injury to Mauro Rosales who is the team's second best wing style wide midfielder. That probably ends this week though, as Seattle seems likely to go back to more of a winger based 4-1-3-2 with Rosales wide on the right and Lamar Neagle on the left.
Neither are dominant the way that Zakuani is, but that's true of all but a handful of players in the league. What this means is that Seattle will have to play more of a team based game and count on guys like Brad Evans or Erik Friberg making great secondary runs, combined with better interplay from the attacking four. Seattle will have its strongest, healthiest lineup in several months but won't have significant match-up issues, well except for Fucito on whoever.
HTiOT: Has the presence of the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer changed what it means to be a fan of the Seattle Sounders? Have the Portland Timbers being in MLS had any personal effect on you as a fan?
DC: I think it has hardened the resolve of those new to local soccer. The USL Sounders didn't draw well, but we are actively sharing those stories and history of success. It also helps get the club more notice in the main-stream media, which is always a good thing.
Personally the addition of the Timbers is great, it felt a bit hollow to only beat them in the US Open Cup for two straight years. Although John Spencer fielded a weakened side in qualifying adding the excuse that he didn't have a deep enough team to win two games in one week, so they won't be in it again. As a Seattle fan I look forward to watching the team go into the Glass House and show the Timbers that no matter how loud they are, they are still only in MLS because of us.