Yesterday, Tweed Thornton and I had the opportunity to speak with Chicago Fire head coach Frank Klopas. It was an excellent chance to ask some questions that we had been wondering about and had been hearing from other Chicago Fire fans. It was also a chance to get to know the man who will be starting his first full season as head coach in March. Here are some of the most important things we took away from the conversation:
On the Draft this Thursday:
Klopas admitted that the Fire's focus in the draft this year has changed slightly from last year. It appears the club drafted players at positions that filled the needs of the club last year as opposed to simply selecting the best overall player available. With the 9th pick in 2011, the Fire selected defender Jalil Anibaba from North Carolina, who ended up starting immediately for the club. After a slightly rocky start at RB, Anibaba was a crucial part of a central defense that became more solid as the year went on. Neither of the team's later picks is still with the club (although forward Davis Paul made the final roster heading into the season opener, he was eventually waived).
This year though, the focus seems to be on finding that best available player as the Fire are once again drafting from that #9 spot. Klopas seems very comfortable with where the team is going right now and said they will be looking for the 'best player available'. When Tweed suggested that meant fans can look for the Fire to draft a player that can start right away, Klopas made a point of saying the best player available could also be the one that develops down the road instead. Chicago wants the player who will give the most to the Fire in the long-term and find themselves in the position to grab that kind of player this year.
Klopas also mentioned that the group with him at the draft on Thursday will include Director of Player Personnel Michael Jeffries, Assistant Coaches Leo Percovich and Mike Matkovich, Goalkeeper Coach Aron Hyde and the Managing Director of Andell Sports Group, Javier Leon.
On Assistant Coaches:
When discussing the re-hiring of Mike Matkovich after Matkovich was let go in 2010, Klopas made it clear he was the head coach now and selected his own assistants. Very strong answer. Both myself and Tweed were fans of this.
On Home-Grown Players:
Klopas also mentioned that the club was open to signing a home-grown player in 2012, but currently there are no plans to do so. It might sound like a stock answer of sorts but Tweed mentioned post-interview that the top Home Grown candidates could use a year or so of work before meeting the standards of a contract. Current Home Grown signings Victor Pineda and Kellen Gulley are taking up two of the ten Supplemental roster spots for now. The Fire's three picks in Thursday's draft are top candidates to fill up the few remaining spots after them.
On Preseason Training:
Looking ahead to preseason training, Klopas mentioned that the club will be inviting fewer players to camp this year than last. Think 30 instead of last year's camp which was over 40 players. This makes sense when you consider that last year, the competition for roster spots was very wide open whereas this year, the team's picture is much clearer. This should make for a stronger, more cohesive club in 2012.
He also quickly mentioned that forward Kheli Dube, who was selected in the Re-Entry draft, will likely be invited to training camp. As of now, no announcement as been made regarding Dube being signed to an official contract. Hopefully he'll be able to recover from some of the injuries he faced last year and can make the team and contribute.
On the next Technical Director:
The status of the next Technical Director of the club remains fairly uncertain. Klopas did mention that the club is looking to bring someone in, but wouldn't give a timeline or say where the club is in that process. At this point, it will be interesting to see if anyone is brought in before the start of the season.
On new signing Rafael Robayo:
Klopas was excited about the recent signing of Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo. He spoke about his ability as a two-way midfielder and his winning experience as reasons why the club was excited to have him. He also mentioned that he wasn't bringing him in simply to occasionally spell Pavel Pardo or Logan Pause in a defensive midfielder role. Robayo is a No. 8 according to Klopas.
On Scouting and signing new players:
Klopas spoke about his recent scouting trip to Europe. He visited Switzerland, Germany and Spain and said he was able to look at some players he was interested in as well as build future connections. He also mentioned spending time with Atletico Madrid while in Spain as part of their new partnership with the Fire. He also mentioned that none of his assistants took separate scouting trips to other locations. Last year's off-season saw Mike Jeffries and Javier Leon focus on Central and South America.
A throwaway remark I made about looking for players in Greece opened Klopas up a bit. He mentioned that the uncertain current economic situations in countries like Greece could present opportunities for the club. (Dimitris Salpigidis, anyone?)
The interview ended with Klopas discussing his desire to make Chicago an elite MLS city again. He spoke of channeling the 1998 team by focusing on being a miserable team to play against. When asked to reflect on his four years as technical director and his first year as head coach to end the interview, he said he's still working hard to improve in his new role with the club. "It's a learning process, and I'm trying to get better every day," he said. Honestly, there's not much more we can ask for.