For the second straight year, the Chicago Fire are not participating in the MLS Playoffs. Despite a valiant turn around in the final games on the season, most notably the stunning comeback against DC United, the Fire came up just short. As we enter the long and dark off-season the Fire have many questions to answer before kicking a ball in 2012. Will players like Pardo and Grazzini return? What players will be left unprotected for the upcoming expansion draft? Are we going to get a shirt sponsor? These are the questions on every fan's lips but there is one question that is much more important, namely who will be sitting on the bench as the Fire’s head coach next season.
Frank Klopas took over as interim after the firing of Carlos De Los Cobos at the end of May. Klopas won 11 games, tied 10 games and lost 6 in all competitions, leading the team to the US Open Cup Final in the process. At the season’s end, fans, players, journalists, coaches, and MLS commentators all seem to be in consensus; Klopas should return as the Fire’s head coach next season. We will know the Fire’s decision in a matter of hours and it looks highly likely that Klopas will indeed be returning to the bench. I however, seem to be in the very small minority who believe that Frank should not be sitting on the bench this season. Here are my 3 reasons why.
#1 The Pardo/Gargan/Grazzini Factor
Between the sacking of de los Cobos and the signing of the first of the Pardo/Grazzini/Gargan trio (Grazzini on July 13) the Fire played 8 games, winning 1, drawing 6 and losing 1, scoring 5 goals and giving up 5. The last of the trio (Gargan) was acquired on July 28th . Since then the Fire played 14 games, winning 7, drawing 4 and losing 3, scoring 26 and giving up 20. As we can see, the signings played a large role in the Fire’s turn around, scoring a combined 7 goals and bagging 9 assists. As we know though, it's not all about the numbers. Pardo’s outstanding reading of the game really helped Logan Pause in the center of midfield and the Mexican’s brilliant passing range helped the Fire start countless counter attacks. Grazzini’s creativity and drive were also much needed in midfield. It is also refreshing to see a Fire player demand the ball, something we have not seen since the days of Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Gargan also brought more experience to the back line and rarely looked troubled. I find it very hard to argue that the Fire’s fantastic end to the season had more to do with Frank Klopas finding his feet as manager than the signings of Pardo, Gargan and Grazzini.
#2 Pappa and Sega – Weakest Links
Ask any Fire fan that watched the 2011 season to put their loyalties to certain players aside and tell you who they thought were the weakest two players this season and I’d be willing to bet that the majority would answer that they were most disappointed with Marco Pappa and Gonzalo Segares. For the overwhelming majority of the Klopas era, Marco Pappa played on the wing. From this position, Pappa contributed very little throughout the season. Yes, he finished with 8 goals but his overall play left a lot to be desired. How many times this season did we see Pappa get the ball, take on his man, lose the ball, and then foul his opponent? Far too often. (Pappa committed the second most fouls of any Fire player this season). How many times did we see Marco Pappa get the ball on the wing, dribble inside and then take a weak shot that barely tested the goalkeeper? Far too often. For a winger, Pappa had only 2 assists all season, 3 less than Pavel Pardo, a player who played 16 less games and 1277 less minutes than the Guatemalan. We have seen Pappa explode this season like he did against RSL, scoring a hat trick but games like that are few and far between. Players like Pappa must be managed correctly. Instead of playing him in every game that he was available like Klopas (and his predecessor) did, a spell on the bench could have proved beneficial for both Pappa and the Fire.
Gonzalo Segares had an outstanding 4 years with the Fire after being drafted in 2005. Nobody stood in Sega’s way when he wanted to try his luck in Europe in 2009 and everyone involved with the club welcomed him back with open arms when he returned from Cyprus a year later. Sadly for Sega, it seems that his stint in Cyprus had a very detrimental effect on his career. Since returning, Sega has clearly lost a few steps of pace and his decision making has also been quite poor. As the 2011 season went on, Sega’s weaknesses became more and more apparent. Sega constantly bombed forward from his left back position but found himself too far up the field on too many occasions. Sega’s wild decision making and stupid tackles also cost the Fire this season. He committed more fouls than any other player on the team in 2011.
The problems with Sega and Pappa didn’t occur over night and Klopas had a lot of time to experiment with other players in those positions. Pappa is a much easier position to fill with Nyarko being the obvious choice to fill in on the wing. Left back provided Klopas with more of a dilemma. With Pause going to right back for a few games and Pappa not playing well the opportunity for Klopas to experiment with Gargan or Anibaba at left back. He never took that opportunity.
#3 Tactics – Living and Dying By One Formation
The Fire’s biggest game of the season, the US Open Cup Final against Seattle in Seattle, posed a difficult dilemma for Frank Klopas, namely what is my plan B? Plan A – the quick counter attack relying on the lightning speed of Nyarko and especially Oduro had started to work well, but against a shrewd tactician like Sigi Schmid, a plan B was definitely needed. Sadly for the Fire, there was no plan B that night in Seattle and the Fire’s plan A was neutralized by Schmid’s tactics. Oduro and Nyarko were stifled by the Seattle back line which sat deep, not allowing space for either of the Ghanaians to burst into during a counter attack. Even before the Fire went one down, it was obvious that plan A wasn’t working, but Klopas did little to change it. Grazzini, clearly hampered by injury, came on for the last 5 minutes, which was a big mistake. Not only did he contribute little in the 5 minutes he played but he could have injured himself further and missed the Fire’s late playoff push. Diego Chaves also came in for Paladini but Paladini, who looked overawed by the occasion, should have been subbed long before that.
The Seattle game also served as a microcosm for Klopas’s tactical weakness for the manner in which Seattle scored their first goal. The goal came off of a set play, something that Klopas talked about fixing as soon as he took over the coaching position. But in the biggest game of the season, it was a set play that ended the Fire’s chances of winning silverware this season. The Fire also gave up goals on set pieces in the regular season, notably against LA and Houston, two teams known league-wide for the danger they pose on such plays. Under Carlos de los Cobos the Fire gave up lots of goals via set plays, this problem didn't change under Frank.
If the Fire do indeed hire Frank Klopas today, I will be happy with the timing of the decision. The Fire have a very big off-season ahead and putting the head coach in place at the beginning of November is much better than the end of December or later still. I realize that this past season was Frank’s first real coaching job and, with time I hope he can steady the Fire ship and guide the team back to the playoffs and beyond next season. Whatever decision the Fire make, they must stick with the coach through thick and thin next season. If Klopas or whoever the next coach is has the backing of the players, he should remain in place for years to come. The Fire have chopped and changed coaches for too long and what is badly needed is some consistency and patience. I for one would at least liked to have seen the Fire go out and interview some other candidates as well as Frank before making their decision but it seemed that Andrew and the rest of the management/ownership team had their minds made up by the time the season came to an end. If Klopas addresses the concerns I have outlined above, I am sure the Fire will be back to where we belong next season. But if the same old problems still exist next season, Klopas will have a lot of explaining to do.