John Thorrington has his head down. The Fire’s 2009 season has just come to a heartbreaking end—a penalty kick loss to Real Salt Lake—and Thorrington is in a shell-shocked daze as he walks through the tunnels of Toyota Park. Joined by his family, Thorrington, who had his penalty kick saved, is too disheartened to make eye contact with anyone. All he can do is walk, head down, away from the quiet group of people milling about and out into the chilly November night.
In the immediate aftermath of that loss, Frank Klopas may not have felt Thorrington’s pain in the same way, but one got the sense that the Fire’s technical director was going to work hard in the offseason to ensure that no member of the club would have to feel like Thorrington did in 2010. And Klopas certainly worked hard. He made big changes to the Fire’s soccer philosophy, the roster, and staff. Here’s a look at the most important of those changes:
November 24: Denis Hamlett is let go
In Hamlett’s two years as head coach, he led the team to two Conference Final appearances. Yet he wasn’t invited back for a third year. Under normal circumstances, this would have raised a couple of eyebrows. But Hamlett operated under far from normal circumstances.
"If you look at it, you can say, 'Look the team [made] the conference final two years in a row,’” a source close to the situation told MLSsoccer.com in the wake of Hamlett’s dismissal. “But I think that there are a lot of things that go into this whole process. Managing the group, almost treating them like a psychologist [would], getting the best out of players, game management; those are all things that you can put into it."
The implication is that Hamlett just didn’t quite have everything together as head coach. He failed to instill any chemistry in the locker room, he butted heads with players—most notably former Fire center back Bakary Soumare, who he fought during halftime of one of the team’s regular season games—and his game management was questionable. By all accounts, Klopas made the right decision by letting him go.
December 14: Klopas expresses his desire to see a more attacking style
A month or so after the end of the 2009 season, Klopas laid out his philosophy for 2010 for ESPN Chicago.
"First of all, the goal of the organization is to win a championship," he said. "The second thing is to win games and to play attractive and exciting soccer. The best way to fill those aims is to play offensive soccer, the kind of soccer based on tactical organization. The modern game includes dynamic movement off the ball and tactical ideas as a unit. These days you don't rely on one or two players. That's something that the coach brings together when you see the team on the field—that they're together and in sync, moving quickly, with attacking ideas. That's the modern coach. That kind of style is our goal, and we are working toward accomplishing that. It might not happen in one week, or one month, but I've got a crystal clear idea of this team as a whole."
Initially, Klopas’s decision to transform the Fire into an attacking team seemed like a very good one. The full off-season would allow him to rebuild the side in that mold. But the off-season conspired against him: Gone were flowing attackers Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe, as well as attack-minded wingback Gonzalo Segares. So now, well, there are concerns. Collins John is a striker, but he’s not the kind to spur free-flowing attacks. Kryztztof Krol has experience but lacks the forward-thinking nature of Segares. Still, Klopas’s willingness to put the philosophy out in the open is a watershed moment.
January 11: Fire hire Carlos de los Cobos
Track records don’t always mean much, but in de los Cobos’s case, it means everything. Former manager for big clubs like Club América and Tigres, plus boss of the resurgent El Salvador national team, Klopas’s choice for head coach comes into the job with just about every box checked.
“The Fire's priority in the head coach search was to identify someone with a love for the game and a track record of quality results,” Klopas said. “Carlos's extensive soccer knowledge, experience and success as both a coach and player made him an ideal candidate."
In many ways, he’s the anti-Hamlett. He has experience at the highest levels. He’s on board with the club’s tactical philosophy. And most importantly, the players seem to want to play for him.
January 14: MLS SuperDraft
Snagging Corben Bone, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Steven Kinney and Sean Johnson in the 2010 SuperDraft could make this rookie class one of the Fire’s best in years. All four have impressed in training thus far, and with Bone’s imminent return to full fitness from a knee injury, they should start to really make an impact on the field.
End of January: Fire bring in Krzysztof Król and Julio Martínez
With Rolfe and Segares both leaving the Fire for the greener pastures of Europe, the Fire needed to find some replacements. Enter outside defender Król and winger Martínez. They’re both relatively young talents—Martínez, 24, is a regular for El Salvador; Król, 23, featured for Real Madrid’s reserves—who are hungry to impress, which is generally a winning combination.
February 22: Austin Washington and Daniel Woolard released
Dropping two relatively experienced defenders at this point in the preseason seemed strange. Awfully strange. The moves left the Fire pretty thin in the back line and raised concerns of what options would exist should their starting defenders go down. The move to release Woolard—who has since gone on trial at D.C. United—was especially puzzling. He did well in limited playing time last year and could have been an asset this season.
However, the club has since addressed the depth-at-the-back issue by closing in on Salvadoran international Deris Umanzor, as well as inking rookies Watson-Siriboe and Kinney.
March 10: Fire sign Collins John
One of the blockbuster moves of the offseason for the Fire, signing John didn’t come without controversy. Blessed with a great deal of talent, John has had more than his fair share of troubles in recent years.
However, the Dutchman worked hard—and worked well with his teammates—in preseason. He’s scored goals in friendlies and looks primed for Saturday’s opener. With him in the fold, depth at forward is no longer a liability.
March 20: A new CBA is signed
The most important move of the offseason. Period. Because now the Fire can look back on this offseason and know that all the moves are not for naught. The front office has put the team in a good position to make another deep playoff run—and honestly, that’s all anyone can ask for from any offseason.