With almost one-third of the season expired and the Fire looking like a club destined to miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons the whispers about a coaching change are getting louder. Fans are understandably upset with the club's 2-7-1 record and the outcry for change via social media and various other outlets becomes more vocal with every disappointing loss. Those whispers aren't just from the fan side either. Changes on the bench are commonplace and expected in the result driven world of professional sports and MLS is no different. Once a team, be it in Chicago, New York, or anywhere else goes through a difficult spell you can rest assured that cries for a new coach will be heard sooner rather than later.
Coaches know what they're buying into. It's the nature of the beast in that line of work and they all realize that at some point they're going to face the ax whether they're fully at fault or not. The Alex Fergusons of the world that retire willingly from a post are few and far between. I'm sure Frank Klopas feels the noose tightening. He's realistic enough to know that losing begets change and the most convenient move is always to fire the coach. Convenient doesn't always mean right however.
Firing Klopas or making a move on the bench at this point will signify that the Fire have fallen into the trap that struggling organizations invariably stumble into when losing becomes habit and the need to "make a change" for the betterment of the club means that the coach is out the door. Fire brass knew what they were getting when Klopas was handed the reins "permanently" on November 3, 2011. Klopas had only served as a head coach with the Chicago Storm for two seasons of indoor soccer and had never been the head guy for a professional outdoor club. This is not uncommon in MLS where the likes of Jason Kreis has made a successful transition without ever leading a team from a head coaching perspective. There are others as well, although most are still unproven. Ryan Nelsen, Ben Olsen, and Mike Petke all come to mind. That formula can work if a club has enough talent to compensate for the coaching shortcomings and management realizes that there are going to be mistakes as the coach essentially learns on the fly or management has embarked in a full-on rebuilding program with an unproven gaffer and young players and time has been afforded for this growth. The Fire fall into neither of these categories.
Tactics, substitutions, man management, and a knack for getting the best out of a squad are all areas that coaches develop over the course of a career and none of it comes easily in most cases. "I believe Frank is the best person to lead our young men to achieve success on the pitch and beyond. Since we brought him back to the Fire ranks a few years ago, he has shown an incredible commitment to building the kind of club and team we strive for," said Fire Owner Andrew Hauptman on November 3, 2011 when the club announced that Klopas was losing the interim tag and was the best choice to lead the team going forward. "He's a passionate and hard working coach, and he believes in our values and our philosophy and it shows. He has a special bond with our young players, and he has fostered a unique culture this year that is sure to lead the Fire to great success in the future."
Do the values that landed him the permanent spot in the first place change when the club loses? Of course not, but questions continue to mount with every loss and the nature of professional sports begs that those questions be answered immediately. Making a move with Klopas places Hauptman in a tricky position. He brought him into the organization and moved him into the Technical Director's role in the first place. As a popular figure with the majority of the fan base, replacing him now would raise the ire of many who believe the owner isn't doing enough from his end to ensure that the club is successful on the field. Furthermore, the club has gone out of it's way to promote Klopas as the public face of the franchise for the better part of the last few years. Removing him now would place the Fire further back in the local media spotlight and undo some of the work done on the marketing end with local radio and tv outlets who already paid little or no mind to the soccer team in Bridgeview. Right or wrong, to many Klopas is Mr. Fire.
That's not to say that results shouldn't be the ultimate factor in deciding the fate of a coach because the bottom line is wins and losses but Hauptman has other factors to consider as well. One of the biggest considerations should come as a result of asking a simple question. Does another coach improve this team right now?
Whether it be Jesse Marsch, Sir Alex Ferguson, or someone like Eric Wynalda, does hiring a new coach resolve any of the issues the Fire organization has created for themselves? Certainly no one can account for injuries in the volume that the club has suffered through early this season but it wasn't a stretch to imagine that the injury plagued 33 year old center back that is vitally important to your defense might miss some games in 2013. It wasn't a stretch to believe that the backline was incredibly thin, particularly at right back where the release of veteran Dan Gargan left the position open to Jalil Anibaba and the perpetually injured Steven Kinney.
The Fire did little to address this issue before the season and have done little to rectify it during the campaign. Wells Thompson may do as a fill-in or spot starter but he continues to prove that he isn't the answer for more than an occasional emergency appearance.
It also shouldn't have been difficult to anticipate that Sherjill MacDonald wasn't going to be the answer up top. Neither was Maicon Santos who was selected in first day of Re-Entry for MLS veterans therefore locking in his base salary at the current $157,000.00 wage. Most observers have been clamoring for an accomplished finisher for years and that is still the case today. Does Marsch or anyone else suddenly turn around an offense that has scored 6 times in 10 games and has been shut out 6 times already? Does Marsch or anyone else improve on filling out a line-up card with only 26 players on the roster and many of them unavailable?
And what of veterans Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz who were brought in to generate a more dynamic look from center midfield? Lindpere appears to have aged five years overnight and has been a shadow of the player he was when he arrived in MLS with New York. Larentowicz has been just okay in his role, but it seems the club was expecting something more than just okay. How does a new coach change any of that?
When Carlos de Los Cobos was released on Memorial Day weekend in 2011 it was obvious why a change had to be made. The club was floundering and de Los Cobos, amid a litany of bad decisions (which we won't go into here) didn't have any answers and wasn't flexible enough to adapt to a league he didn't really understand in the first place. Klopas' record for the ensuing 11 matches after de Los Cobos was released was almost identical to that of his predecessor. The club's turnaround coincided with the arrivals of Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini. To no one's surprise adding quality players improved the product on the pitch. Imagine that.
Klopas did a good job of easing those players into the side on the fly and that earned him the "permanent" position almost immediately after the 2011 season ended. Making a move now would repeat the same pattern of impatience and knee-jerk reaction that is all too common in football these days. But how common is it in MLS?
Here is the list of coaching changes made by each club in the league since 2007. The similarities in consistency between the top teams over this period and the clubs perpetually in flux are striking:
Preki : Jan ’07 to Nov ‘09
Martin Vasquez: Dec ’09 to Oct ‘10
Robin Fraser: Nov ’11 to Nov ‘12
JL Sanchez Sola: Dec ’12 to current
Fernando Clavijo: Dec ’04 to Aug ‘08
Gary Smith: Nov ’08 to Nov ‘11
Oscar Pareja: Jan ’12 to current
Steve Morrow: Nov ’06 to May ‘08
Schellas Hyndman: June ’08 to current
Los Angeles Galaxy
Frank Yallop: June ’06 to Nov ‘07
Ruud Gullit: Nov ’07 to Aug ‘08
Bruce Arena: Aug ’08 to current
John Spencer: Dec ’10 to July ‘12
Gavin Wilkinson: July ’12 to Nov ‘12
Caleb Porter: Dec ’12 to current
Real Salt Lake
Jason Kreis: May ’07 to current
San Jose Earthquakes
Frank Yallop: Nov ’07 to current
Sigi Schmid: Jan ’09 to current
Teitur Thordarson: Jan ’11 to May ‘11
Tom Soehn: May ’11 to Oct ’11 (interim)
Martin Rennie: Oct ’11 to current
Dave Sarachan: Nov ’02 to July ‘07
Juan Carlos Osorio: July ’07 to Dec ‘07
Denis Hamlett: Jan ’08 to Nov ‘09
Carlos de los Cobos: Jan ’10 to May ‘11
Frank Klopas: May ’11 to current
Sigi Schmid: Jan ’06 to Dec ‘08
Robert Warzycha: Jan ’09 to current
Tom Soehn: Jan ’06 to Dec ‘09
Curt Onalfo: Dec ’09 to Aug ‘10
Ben Olson: Aug ’10 to current
Dominic Kinnear: 2006 to current
Jesse Marsch: Oct ’11 to Nov ‘12
Mario Biello: Nov ’12 (interim)
Marco Schallibaum: Jan ’13 to current
New England Revolution
Steve Nicol: Jan ’02 to Oct ‘11
Jay Heaps: Nov ’11 to current
New York Red Bulls
Bruce Arena: July ’06 to Nov ‘07
Juan Carlos Osorio: Dec ’07 to Aug ‘09
Richie Williams: Aug ’09 to Jan ’10 (interim)
Hans Backe: Jan ’10 to Nov ‘12
Mike Petke: Dec ’12 to now
Peter Nowak: May ’09 to June ‘12
John Hackworth: June ’12 to current
Sporting Kansas City
Curt Onalfo: Nov ’06 to Aug ‘09
Peter Vermes: Aug ’09 to current
Mo Johnston: Aug ’06 to Feb ‘08
John Carver: Feb ’08 to April ‘09
Chris Cummins: April ’09 to Oct ‘09
Preki: Nov ’09 to Sept ‘10
Nick Dasovic: Sept ’10 to Jan ‘11
Aron Winter: Jan ’11 to June ‘12
Paul Mariner: June ’12 to Jan ‘13
Ryan Nelsen: Jan ’13 to current
Only Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls have made more managerial changes than the Chicago Fire since 2007. Richie Williams held an interim tag in the last few months of the 2009 season so that actually places the Fire in second place for the dubious distinction of being the most unstable coaching franchise in the league over the last 6 seasons - and that's assuming that Klopas finishes the year in charge.
Klopas isn't fully without blame for the current state of affairs as he has had some involvement in player evaluation and procurement although much of that has been lifted from his shoulders in order to help him focus on the actual day to day task of managing a professional soccer team. None of that alleviates any perceived lack of in game tactical acumen, mismanagement of talent, or handling, preparation and training that all professional coaches are criticized for by fans and media but it should be noted that every coach in every league has been critiqued at some point for those same "faults" since football started being played professionally at high levels.
If results continue as they have been over the last several weeks it will be easy to say the coach has "lost the team" and that may well be the case but other factors need to be weighed. At some point, the Fire need to establish some consistency behind the bench whether it's with Klopas or Marsch or whomever might be the choice to take the controls for the foreseeable future. Bringing in a replacement now that isn't an established and accomplished coach to reap the temporary rewards of success brought about by any reinforcements that are signed during the July transfer window only delays the inevitable and perpetuates the cycle of change that non-contenders are constantly mired in.
Klopas may indeed not be THAT guy but at some point, Hauptman believed he was or he wouldn't have hired him in the first place. The goal should be to find THAT guy and stick with him for more than two seasons despite losing periods as some of the top clubs have done. If it's Klopas then he's already in place and has the full support of the organization despite the collapse at the end of last season and the putrid start to 2013. If it's someone else then the organization should realize that an 18-24 month stint to turn things around isn't long enough.
Perhaps it's time to stop changing coaches every two seasons and look deeper at what's actually going on organizationally that facilitates that these types of moves be made. When you look hard enough sometimes you find it's not the coaches. It's just convenient to say that it's time for a change on the bench.