BRIDGEVILLE, Ill. -- Frank Klopas had two options when the Chicago Fire began the 2011 season with a 1-4-6 record.
One, Klopas could have resigned. The team was coached by Carlos de los Cobos, but a bulk of the roster was assembled by Klopas, who was hired as the team’s technical director in January of 2008. He also bore responsibility for the Fire’s lack of success.
The other option was for him to fire de los Cobos and take over the coaching duties himself. If he truly believed in the players, Klopas would prove the Fire were better than what they had proven under de los Cobos.
Staying true to his personality, Klopas chose the latter. He’s never shied away from a soccer challenge.
“Some guys really don’t want to step up and take (penalty kicks,)” Klopas said after practice on Tuesday. “I always wanted to take them. Every situation is an opportunity. You can’t look at the worst-case scenario. You won’t go anywhere like that. I’d rather attempt it and miss than never go out there and never take the chance.”
When it came to coaching, Klopas took the chance and the Fire have been rewarded for it. In 2011, Klopas became the interim head coach, and the Fire just missed the playoffs by three points. In 2012 as the permanent coach, Klopas directed the Fire to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and they will host the Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park on Wednesday.
“When the opportunity (to coach) was there, I had to step in,” said Klopas, who grew up in Chicago, played for the Fire from 1998-1999 and was the team’s strength and conditioning coach in 2000. “I wanted to step in. Because, first of all, I felt I was ready to step in and second I knew the players we brought in here, and I had all the confidence in the world, regardless of the record, that the quality we had was a lot better than what we had shown, knowing it was going to take time. And I think you saw the process and the steps even last year that we took; we made a good run.
“You have to believe in the players you have. The players have to know it’s not just about words; it’s about actions. You believe in them, you give them confidence. They also have to understand the hard work takes place during the season because it’s easy to put down certain goals. It’s a different thing to put down a whole year or 8-9 months that every day you’re coming in here with that mentality. You’re pushing and trying to get better every day. That’s what it’s all about -- holding guys to a higher standard, but that starts at the top.”
Klopas’ move to take over the team earned him immediate respect among the players.
“I think the one thing that was really impressive from my standpoint is we saw him take responsibility moving from the technical director position to fill that role on an interim basis, feeling he had a responsibility because he brought all these players in,” Fire captain and midfielder Logan Pause said. “And I think as a player you see that, and that’s a guy you want to play for and a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s continued to progress and develop and I think he’s got a lot of good years ahead of him.
“I think we’ve gotten better as a team. I think we laid a good foundation and framework at the end of last year when Frank came in. I think the staff did a great job of adding some pieces over the offseason and even into this year of guys who come in and buy into what we’re doing. I think 17 wins (this season) somewhat speaks for itself. We’ve progressively just gotten better and hopefully that shows in the playoffs.”
Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko, who has been with the team since 2008, thought Klopas’ first positive moves as head coach in 2011 were to restart having scouting reports and building up the confidence of all the players.
“It was more of what the guys were familiar with in the past, like a lot of scouting reports, video sessions and stuff like that,” Nyarko said. “It was something we missed the past two seasons when we had not made the playoffs. He knew the league. He knew how to get players going. He recruited pretty much everyone on the team, especially when he was technical director, so he knew everyone’s tendencies. He knew how to use everyone and get everyone going. So I think that’s the huge, main thing he brought into the locker room. He gave the guys who don’t play as much, he gave them confidence. He made them feel part of the team. That’s what was missing in previous years.
“One of his first speeches he made, ‘I recruited all of you guys and I have confidence in all you guys. He knows how to psyche a player and a mentality of a player going into a game, training sessions. If the player’s hurt, if the player’s not playing a lot, he just knows how to give that person confidence knowing that player is part of the team. He brought him in for a reason. He uses everyone to their strengths.”
Klopas turned to the strengths of his past players, but he also went and acquired new ones. The Fire still had the rights to Chris Rolfe and brought him back from Denmark. The Fire obtained forward Sherjill Macdonald, forward Guillermo Franco, defender Arne Friedrich and midfielder Alex through transfers.
What also helped in 2012 was getting off to a better start. Where the Fire had only one win in their first 11 games in 2011, Klopas’ group jumped out to a 5-3-3 record in 2012 and finished 17-11-6.
“I wasn’t expecting anything less, Nyarko said. “(Klopas) came in and was very familiar with the league, the guys on the team, what direction he wanted to head into. Very unfortunate we missed the playoffs by a game last year. Coming into the season, one of the first interviews I did this season I said there would be no excuses now because we know what we’re about, we know the formation, we know the coach, we’re familiar with everyone. It’s playoff or bust. So going into the season, I was very, very confident we’re going to get here.”
Pause said, “We had a couple of dark years not making the playoffs. It was frustrating as a player and a team and organization to be out, but we’ve put one foot in front of the other all year long and just continued to plug away. Yes, we’ve achieved a goal that we’ve made it to the playoffs, but we’re hungry and we’re not satisfied with just that. We want to continue to do well and advance and we’d love to bring a championship back to Chicago.”
“We’re in an opportunity now,” Klopas said. “We made the playoffs and we can do something special. We’re happy to be in the playoffs, but it’s a whole new thing. We need to keep working hard because this is something that’s got to be in a consistent basis every year.”