A legend of Chicago soccer, Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas remains an enigma for a rising generation of fans around the country. Born in Prosimna, Greece, Klopas seemingly had a ball at his feet since he learned to walk, though when his parents decided to emigrate to the United States when Frank was eight-years-old, his life took a big turn.
"We all know the story of soccer in the United States during the seventies and eighties," said Klopas from Phoenix on Thursday afternoon. "It just was not anywhere near where it is today. It was difficult for me to come here at first because from a young age I knew I wanted to be a pro and developing in the environment that existed during that time was very, very tough."
Settling in Chicago in 1974, Frank did his best to develop his game through his formative years, continuing to keep a ball at his feet throughout. A known prodigy in the Chicago soccer community during the early eighties, Klopas scored 70 goals during his prep career, leading Mather High school to the 1983 Public School League championship his senior year.
Following graduation Klopas signed with the North American Soccer League's Chicago Sting, but an injury kept him from playing in the club's 1984 championship season, a campaign that coincided with the collapse of the once powerful league. The Greek-American striker stayed with the Sting for five seasons in the Major Indoor Soccer League, impressing enough to begin earning invitations to national team camps in 1987, eventually staking claim to a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
"At that time indoor was all we had at a professional level to play competitively. I loved going to the national team to play good opponents outdoors. The situation wasn't conducive to preparing players for a high level though. Whenever I'd come back to the Sting from the national team, my game would stagnate a little bit because of the transition-back and-forth, so my desire was to go back to Greece and get the chance to play the game the way the rest of world did on a full-time basis."
After going to Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympics, Klopas became one of the first Americans to sign a professional contract in Europe during the modern era of American soccer, inking a deal with Greek giants AEK Athens later that year.
When speaking about Americans that paved the way abroad, names like Harkes, and Keller are more commonly mentioned, however Klopas predated them both with his move.
"I didn't think much about being a pioneer for Americans in Europe, I was just happy to earn the opportunity to go and improve as a player. At that time it was just where you had to go to develop. It was a very different experience at a young age -- learning to have the right attitude towards training and taking care of myself. I became a student of the game, taking a deeper understanding from a tactical standpoint while bringing more skills back to the national team as the program started to improve. The whole experience has helped me throughout my career and even into the role that I have now with the Fire."
While at AEK, Klopas appeared in 49 matches, scoring six goals and helping the club win three consecutive Superliga titles, from 1989-1991. During the '91 season, Klopas tore his anterior cruciate ligament. That, combined with a subsequent infection kept the striker out for nearly two years.
After recuperating from the injury, Klopas signed a contract with the United States Soccer Federation and became a resident player in the national team. As there was no full-fledged professional league in the United States, the Federation turned the side into a quasi-club team.
"After my injury I was a different player but I was still good enough for the national team. My time playing for the U.S. was an honor and an amazing experience in my career. We got to travel all over the world and play a lot of different teams with different styles. That combined with the '94 World Cup was the starting point for the exposure that the players and the sport as a whole have today."
Though he made the 1994 World Cup roster, Klopas didn't appear in any matches during the tournament as the United States advanced from the group stage for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1930. In total, Klopas made 39 appearances, scoring 12 goals for the United States, in an international career that spanned over ten years.
"The difference with the national team between the early 90s and today isn't necessarily about the talent level, but about depth. The team is miles ahead because the dependence is no longer solely on a small number of players, but a strong player pool. MLS has done a great job in developing the American player for the national team and careers in Europe."
Following the tournament, Klopas made a brief return to Greece with Apollon, playing 10 matches before returning to the United States to launch Major League Soccer in 1996. With Chicago not being named among the original 10 MLS cities, Klopas was allocated to Kansas City and played for the Wizards during the league's first two seasons.
"To be honest I was really disappointed Chicago wasn't one of the original MLS cities, but I went to Kansas City, joined a team with great players and enjoyed myself. For 1998 though, I wanted nothing more than to come back to Chicago and really the rest is history."
After playing 54 matches and scoring seven goals for Kansas City over two seasons, Klopas was traded to the Fire, joining the team that would eventually win "the Double" in their expansion season -- winning the MLS Cup 2-0 over D.C. United and then the U.S. Open Cup 2-1 in extra time over the Columbus Crew, with Klopas scoring the 99th minute winner.
"It was a special team, with guys like Nowak, Kosecki, Razov and young players at that time in C.J. Brown and Josh Wolff all coached by Bob Bradley. That was definitely one of the most memorable of my career and really hit home my love for this city and this team."
Klopas played his final season in 1999, making 45 appearances and scoring six goals for the Fire over his two years with the club. Klopas spent 2000 in a coaching role with the team before leaving the club. Following two years spent as head coach of the MISL's Chicago Storm, Klopas returned to the Fire in 2008 as the club' s first-ever Technical Director and as he enters his third season in the role, his goals for the team are clear.
"Obviously we want to win and I think with the players and coaching staff we've brought in over the offseason we're giving ourselves that opportunity. The attitude and commitment are there from both sides of the locker room and while there is still a lot of hard work to be done, we're looking to return the MLS Cup to Chicago again this season."