Burnt Out: Is Frank Klopas Playing the Fire into the Ground?

The Chicago Fire and the LA Galaxy released their lineups yesterday and the confidence among some Fire fans grew larger. Everyone already knew that David Beckham was 4,000 miles away at Wimbledon and suspended for this match. Edson Buddle was ruled out with an injury. Omar Gonzalez is still on the injury comeback route himself. Now it turned out that LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena had put regulars Landon Donovan and Mike Magee on the bench and given starts to Hector Jimenez, Chad Barrett, Michael Stephens, and Marcelo Sarvas. Chicago Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko on his own enter the game 2 starts and about 300 minutes short of what those latter four had combined for during the 2012 season.

Arena's not oft used quartet had the last laugh when LA won the game 2-0. The Galaxy checked in their 3 points at Midway Airport on their way back home while the Fire are facing offense trouble questions. Only 1 goal in 3 games without the departed Sebastian Grazzini? Will Alex or Chris Rolfe be taking over Grazzini's role? When will any player reinforcements arrive from the transfer market?

These are all valid questions but Fire fans and front office staff would be wise to put down the fingers and start taking notes from yesterday's opposing sidelines.

Bruce Arena

Yesterday was not a case of Arena throwing away a game with his lineup and still ending up with a result out of luck. Arena is a master at rotating his roster to keep his team fresh and playing at their best. This is a man who turned the worst team in MLS in 2008 into a club that was a goal away from winning 3 straight Supporters' Shields between 2009-2011. You want to tell me that the Galaxy aren't off to a great start this year? I'll point you to the standings where LA is now just 5 points behind Chicago and rising.

Every year, Arena keeps his minutes among his top players low. In 2009, the top 11 players in minutes accounted for only 73% of the total minutes played. In 2010, that figure was 76%. In 2011, it was 72% and in 2012 it's at 76%. Here's what it looks like league wide:

Team 2012
Top 11 % Points
Chicago 85 28
Kansas City 85 33
New England 82 22
Vancouver 82 30
Colorado 81 22
Houston 80 25
New York 78 31
Salt Lake 78 36
San Jose 77 37
Los Angeles 76 23
Philadelphia 76 17
Toronto 75 10
Columbus 72 22
D.C. 72 33
Portland 72 19
Chivas USA 71 20
Dallas 71 16
Montreal 70 21
Seattle 69 30

2012 Points league leaders San Jose and Salt Lake are right at 77% & 78%. If you go back to the top four teams in 2011 and 2010, you would see similar numbers.

Team 2011 Top 11% Points
Los Angeles 72 67
Seattle 72 63
Salt Lake 71 53
Dallas 78 52

Team 2010 Top 11% Points
Los Angeles 76 59
Salt Lake 77 50
New York 74 51
Dallas 77 50

The sample size is too small to dictate what a MLS team needs to do in order to be successful. However, this does provide an example of what recent successful MLS teams have looked like. It also shows that the Fire are currently last in the league when it comes to roster rotation. Yesterday's lineup of Sean Johnson, Jalil Anibaba, Arne Friedrich, Austin Berry, Gonzalo Segares, Logan Pause, Pavel Pardo, Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe, Marco Pappa, and Dominic Oduro marked the 3rd start in 10 days for every player except Friedrich and Segares. Those two along with Dan Gargan each started two of the games in the past 10 days. The substitution pattern the last ten days has seen Alex sub in first all three times while Orr Barouch, Rafael Robayo, and Hunter Jumper each subbed in twice.

Negative Problems with the Pattern

Fatigue is obviously the biggest issue here. After a certain point, minutes catch up to a player and individuals aren't playing at their 100% ability. For the same reason that you sub out a player during a match, coaches should look at benching someone who is 80% and start someone who is 100% fresh. Take Oduro for a relevant example. The Ghanaian forward started 40 consecutive games between April 23, 2011 and May 23, 2012. That's great for iron man status but his time on the field and production rate is suffering. After routinely going a full 90 minutes in 2011, Oduro has played the following minutes in the last 9 games: 67, 54, 90, 80, 76, 69, 45 (subbed on), 59, 60. Oduro had at least 1 shot in all but 2 of 29 starts in 2011 but 4 of his last 9 games have come without a shot. Clearly this is a player who would be more effective if he got some rest.

Patrick Nyarko leads the team in minutes played in 2012. He finished the last 13 games of 2011 with 1 goal and 6 assists but in his last 13 games in 2012 he only has 1 goal and 2 assists. Thirty-five year old Pavel Pardo is second on the team in minutes in 2012 and his stats have dropped from 1 goal and 5 assists in 13 games to 0 goals and 1 assist in 18 games this year. We could get into an argument about the changing roles of each player but the bottom line is players look tired and they aren't producing like they did last year. At what point does fatigued Dominic Oduro, Patrick Nyarko, and Pavel Pardo become equal to Orr Barouch, Corben Bone, and Daniel Paladini at 100%?

Another issue with putting out the same lineups is provide your opposition with complete predictability. Want to plan for the Chicago Fire? Here are the only 14-16 players you need to know about. Set a lineup and a game plan around Dominic Oduro because that's what is going to happen up top. Prepare to counter for the same group of subs. Prepare a strategy around the Fire being fatigued because there probably won't be any fresh players. The lineup is going to be 4-2-3-1 because that's all Klopas throws out there. At what point does the same old 4-2-3-1 lineup become worse or equal to a 4-4-2 with a fresh set of players?

The same rotation also kills competitive spirit in training. Imagine you are someone like Corben Bone or Daniel Paladini. You got decent minutes last year. Now, Klopas barely trusts you to take the field. At what point do you just give up trying to impress the coach? Klopas keeps putting out Rafael Robayo even though he has been mediocre at best. Corben Bone has played 1 minute this year. Paladini has appeared for 30 minutes in one game in the last 12 matches. In those 30 minutes, Paladini has an assist. Robayo has zero goals or assists in 398 minutes of play on the season. What do Paladini and Bone have to do exactly to leap frog him in the substitution pecking order?

Yet another reason to expand the rotation is allow for breakout candidates. The Fire are not alone in being guilty here. D.C. United waived Blake Brettschneider earlier this year. He now has 2 goals and 1 assist in 730 minutes for New England. D.C. United parted ways with Brandon Barklage after three years of almost nothing. He's now on New York with 2 goals and 3 assists in 973 minutes in 2012. Lee Nguyen was outright cut by the Vancouver Whitecaps. He's now on New England with 3 goals and 2 assists in 1323 minutes. The Chicago Fire just traded Kwame Watson-Siriboe to Real Salt Lake for a low draft pick. After not playing a single minute in 2011 or 2012 for Chicago, RSL started Watson-Siriboe against Seattle and subbed him in against Portland in 0-0 and 3-0 results respectively. One start and an 8 minute substitute appearance don't make a smashing success but it is very dangerous to assume that a guy 'can't cut it in MLS' because he didn't get minutes on a certain team. If Klopas doesn't think Paladini, Bone, Michael Videira, and Tony Walls can cut it, let's release them. Pick up a player like Brettschneider, Barklage, or Nguyen and give them a shot. History suggests that Bone is a prime player to start producing if only he was given the opportunity. Every minute he's on the field means another player is resting up and getting fresher for the next battle.

Counter Point

Chicago is 8-6-4 on the season. Twenty-eight points after 18 games is one of the best starts in the team's history. Chicago is only 5 points out of 1st place. The Fire are only 9 points away from the Supporters' Shield with a game in hand. Frank Klopas turned around a squad that was 1-4-6 and has lead the team to a 16-10-14 record since he took over last summer. The Fire's record of 15-10-8 in their last 34 games equals 53 points; a total that would have put Chicago in 1st place in the East in 2011 and tied them with Real Salt Lake for 3rd most points overall in MLS last year. It's hard to argue with Klopas' results.

Conclusion

I think there's a lot of optimism to have in the team despite yesterday's sucker punch of a loss. The team is having a good year but what does the future hold? Even if you agreed with all of the negative problems I listed or shrugged them off and nodded your head with glee while reading the results in the counter point, I think everyone can agree the 2013 Chicago Fire are looking a little shaky. We should have a solid back line returning in Segares, Berry, Anibaba, Gargan, and Jumper. Maybe Gibbs comes back but who else plays back there? Friedrich has made it pretty clear his first wish is to return to Europe. I have my doubts Kwame Watson-Siriboe will succeed in Real Salt Lake but he didn't even get the chance to go out and learn from his mistakes. If you bring in a new center back to work with the team, they can begin to work with Paolo Tornaghi (Sean Johnson's contract is reportedly up at the end of the year). Maybe that young player will surprise.

In the defensive midfield, you have Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo. Both have been on the wrong side of 30 since August 22, 2011. Heck, Pardo is going to be on the wrong side of 35 on July 26th. The former Mexican international looks like he could go another year and those odds would increase if Paladini spotted him with some starts/subs. If Paladini is going to replace Pardo one day, he's getting no on-the-job training. If Paladini isn't the guy, then you are wasting an opportunity for the heir apparent to come in, get acclimated to the team and learn from one of the best defensive midfielders of all-time.

On the attack, you know Marco Pappa is out the door after this season. Do we have anyone who can replace him? We don't have the slightest clue because we don't play Corben Bone or Victor Pineda. Rafael Robayo has done nothing but talk about being homesick, how long do you think he is going to stick around? Yet Robayo continues to get minutes in favor of domestic players who could be building blocks or at least solid contributors for years to come. Sebastian Grazzini wanted to get paid more and he probably thought he had a ton of leverage. 'Give me a raise or else you'll have to use Plan B... and I know that doesn't exist'.

James Coston highlighted 5 players to look for in the second half of the season but I'm afraid some of the sightings will be few and far between. It's been Klopas' strategy and hey, it's been successful to date. History suggests it's time to mix it up if we want to be successful all season long. The future probably depends on a change of course too.

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