Part of developing relationships with foreign clubs is actually going and meeting with them, something that Klopas, Jeffries and head coach Carlos de los Cobos have done in the past month. Jeffries spent time in South America last month while Klopas and de los Cobos returned last week from a 12-day trip to Europe where they saw eight matches in four different countries, took in training sessions, visited with technical directors and met with agents.
“The trip was very successful. There was a game that we drove six hours just to see. In a three-day span we drove over 1,000 miles going from Serbia to Croatia to Slovenia to the border of Italy and back again to see another game in Serbia. This is something that’s necessary in the offseason. We’re not doing sightseeing. You have to do the travel otherwise people won’t come here. Just because we have a league, it’s not always easy to attract players. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships that may lead to things down the road.”
Those relationships should serve importance in chipping away at the vacant roster spots currently on the Fire roster. Following the Expansion Draft, the club parted ways with striker Collins John and defender Krzysztof Krol, leaving the first team with 19 players. Add to that the league’s roster expansion from 24 to 30 players during MLS Cup weekend and you begin to understand the great task the club’s technical staff has before itself.
Seeing the team lose so many players in a short period of time seemed to set off a trigger in some fans who wanted to see more immediacy with the signing of new players for 2011. That’s not the way things work in the game though, especially when trying to attract players that are still contracted to foreign clubs, Klopas explained.
“Some of the players we saw are still under contract through the end of the year, while guys that are available now are ones that haven’t played in a while. We might be bringing them to train in preseason but the guys we’re looking at to fill out our roster more immediately are proven and will be available to us in January.”
“It hits home again why these trips are important,” continued Klopas. “We’re ahead of the game now in identifying players that will be ready to go then. Another important part of it is being able to meet the players – to spend time with them and make sure we’re doing our homework from a character standpoint. We want them to understand that there’s no difference between playing in Europe and in Chicago because the expectations are high, and no disrespect, but there’s a lot more pressure playing here than in a city that’s less visible because the fans here are passionate and knowledgeable – the demands are high and we’re looking for players here that are winners on and off the field.”
According to Leon, Klopas and his technical staff look set to rack up a few more air miles before preseason training begins in January, scouring more of the globe in the process.
“We may be going to Brazil, which is a very challenging country because it’s so big and is so much about developing relationships and having the right people. The last trip of the year may be to Africa. These trips aren’t vacations. These guys are working very hard – you feel good when you’re doing the work. I feel that everybody right now is giving their best effort to put together the best team possible for 2011.”
Beyond getting the right players from a personality standpoint, there are some key positional holes to fill before 2011.
“When you have a guy like C.J [Brown] that’s retiring and an injury to Steven Kinney, the defense is obviously an area where we’re looking at players,” said Klopas. “At the forward position, again Brian [McBride] retired. It’s a position that’s not easy to fill because every team around the world is looking for guys that can score goals. You can have players that have the ability and sometimes it’s a difficult one to find. I think it’s important to find someone that’s consistent – a guy that in every two or three games is going to score goals.”
The consistent goal scorer Klopas talks about is one the club has had a hard time finding for a while. The last Fire player to hit double digits in goals scored during the regular season was Damani Ralph, who netted 11 in 2004. Despite having the striking talents of McBride, John and Nery Castillo on the roster this year, the club’s top goal scorer in 2010 was midfielder Marco Pappa with seven goals.
The Fire made waves around the league in July by bringing in two Designated Players in the span of two weeks, first signing Mexican international Nery Castillo on loan from Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk before acquiring Swedish World Cup veteran Freddie Ljungberg from Seattle at the end of the month.
While Ljungberg provided an offensive spark in the second half of the season, an out-of-form Castillo had a lackluster debut campaign in MLS.
Both players future’s with the club are unclear, but last week a report surfaced saying the Fire were hoping to send Castillo on loan in January to gain match fitness ahead of the start of the MLS season in mid-March.
Given the Fire picked up two this season, I asked Klopas and Leon what the club looks for in a Designated Player signing.
“When he look at any player the most important thing is for the guy to help us win on the field,” said Klopas. “Every player we bring in, we ask ourselves if they are the type that can help the team. If you look at the history of the league, there have been many good players that have come here but haven’t performed to the level people felt they should. Sometimes it’s not so easy – it doesn’t mean they aren’t good players. If you look at Europe, they throw 20 darts and hit one or two bull’s eyes. Here it’s almost like you have to throw a dart and hit a bull’s eye every time – that’s not easy because the league is so different.”
Leon pointed to specific players that have come to the league and made good on their reputations, adding what he thought they all had in common.
“To me, we look for the type of player that just hates to lose,” he said. “There are certain players like Cuauhtemoc [Blanco] that had that. Things could be going on off the field but when the game started that guy wanted to win as much as anyone in the team and it had a contagious effect on people. Someone I’ve grown to respect a lot as I’ve seen him here is David Beckham. The guy comes back from an Achilles injury in five months. He plays for LA in the playoffs against Seattle and is playing with the passion of someone that’s just fallen in love with the sport. [Guillermo] Barros Schelotto is another example – look at the way he’s fought. These signings aren’t successful every single time, but that is the type of mentality we look for.”