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Burn Notice: Frank Klopas' (mis)use of the Chicago Fire roster

Klopas struggled with roster rotation in 2012. But was it for a greater purpose?


Chicago Fire team writer Editor (Congratulations on this morning's announcement) Jeff Crandall and have been rolling out great segments of an interview Crandall conducted with Chicago Fire head coach Frank Klopas. Thursday's segment dealt with the theme of roster rotation. Here's part of what Klopas had to say.

"For me continuity is very important to have within a team," Klopas explained to "I think you can rotate some guys but it's difficult sometimes to choose which players you do that with. You look at successful teams like Barcelona and Manchester United in the past and there are certain players that never move. Those teams do make some changes but certain guys just don't get rotated."

Manchester United is never a good comparison for a MLS team, especially when discussing roster rotation. The limits of the MLS salary cap versus the finances of one best and most historic teams in the world is an unfair battle. I would never bring up Manchester United here... but Frank did. So here are some random but recent numbers. In Manchester United's last 4 EPL games, they started 19 different players and only 3 players (De Gea, Evra, and Carrick) started in the same spot all 4 games. Klopas in contrast only started 22 different players all year long over the course of a 34 games season. Like I said, it's not a fair fight.

To defend Klopas (and still potentially misinterpret his intention), I think he meant to emphasize that the high quality of some players is so great, you just can't bench them. The previous demonstration of simply using Manchester United's last 4 EPL games dismisses this notion but there's some solid debate behind questions like the one I posed last summer: "At what point does a fatigued Pavel Pardo become equal to Daniel Paladini at 100%?". You have to start Arne Friedrich if he is halfway decent because Friedrich at 50% is better than putting in Hunter Jumper to replace him. The salary cap constraints of MLS mean there will be such talent discrepancies between players that ‘certain players will never move' if healthy. It's a decent short-term argument and I would buy it for playoff games. However, Frank Klopas should have learned first-hand that this isn't always the case.

Circle back to Sunday, July 8. The LA Galaxy were visiting town. Head coach Bruce Arena put out a team of Josh Saunders, A.J. DeLaGarza, David Junior Lopes, Sean Franklin, Todd Dunivant, Michael Stephens, Juninho, Hector Jimenez, Marcelo Sarvas, Chad Barrett, and Robbie Keane. Head coach Frank Klopas put out Sean Johnson, Arne Friedrich, Austin Berry, Gonzalo Segares, Jalil Anibaba, Pavel Pardo, Patrick Nyarko, Logan Pause, Marco Pappa, Dominic Oduro, and Chris Rolfe. That's the Galaxy's B team coming into Toyota Park to face the Fire's A team. Chicago ended up losing the game 2-0 (as I'm sure most of you remember or tried to forget). There are other examples out there. In my opinion, this was the most glaring example where the Fire lost despite having the better team on paper.

Top 11%

Take a look at a figure that for a lack of a better term I'll call ‘Top 11 %'. It stands for the percentage of overall minutes that are played by the top 11 players in minutes played. I'll use the 2012 Chicago Fire as a visual example for how this data set is obtained.

Player Minutes Top 11
Anibaba 2868 2868
Johnson 2766 2766
Nyarko 2756 2756
Segares 2682 2682
Berry 2520 2520
Pause 2424 2424
Pardo 2386 2386
Friedrich 1832 1832
Oduro 1823 1823
Rolfe 1760 1760
Gargan 1754 1754
Pappa 1615 25571
Grazzini 1103
MacDonald 1033
Fernandez 943
Alex 705
Paladini 691
Robayo 439
Gibbs 270
Tornaghi 270
Barouch 224
Puppo 216
Thompson 65
Franco 43
Jumper 41
Videira 40
Bone 26
Total 33295 76.8%

The top 11 players in minutes for the Fire in 2012 played a total of 25,571 minutes. That's good for 76.8% of the 33,295 minutes logged in Chicago Fire 2012 Regular Season games. The chart below demonstrates how that compares league-wide.

Team Top 11%
Kansas City 81.7
San Jose 78.4
Colorado 77.2
Chicago 76.8
Salt Lake 76.8
LA 75.6
New England 74.0
Houston 73.4
Philadelphia 72.8
Vancouver 70.9
DC 70.7
Dallas 70.5
Columbus 70.1
Toronto 69.4
Seattle 68.8
New York 68.5
Montreal 68.1
Portland 65.7
Chivas 65.4

The Fire aren't doing too bad here. My much ballyhooed LA Galaxy roster rotation appears to be just slightly more rotated than Chicago. The whole set of numbers don't necessarily tell the whole story for the season though. First, take a look at the teams that are on the top of this list: Kansas City, San Jose, Colorado, Salt Lake City, and Chicago. All five of these teams crashed out early in the playoffs or didn't make it all in Colorado's case. The four teams that made it to the Conference Finals this year were LA Galaxy (75.6%), Seattle (68.8%), Houston (73.4%), and D.C. (70.7%). You have to wonder if those teams were simply better rested in October. At the very least you have to admit those more rested teams had a slight edge.

A counterargument is Chicago isn't that far from LA. If you add 400 minutes, or about 4.5 full games, to Alex's total and subtract them from the minutes logged by Logan Pause or Pavel Pardo, Chicago's percentage becomes exactly 75.6%. That's equal to the Galaxy. Four hundered minutes one way or another is a seemingly inconsequential amount of time on the face of things. You do have to make drastic changes to get down to meet Houston, D.C. or Seattle though. Plus the fact that teams had more rotation and still advanced farther than the Fire gives Klopas no defense for his lineup strategy. You can't say the Fire need to start the best 11 players every game without consideration for rest when the teams that have a healthy roster rotation are more successful.

One thing I haven't touched on is that Klopas' roster rotation is much worse than what the numbers above would appear to be. Go back to the Chicago Fire 2012 chart and look at the top 11 players for the club. The players that are numbers 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18 (Pappa, Grazzini, MacDonald, Fernandez, Alex, and Robayo) were players that were only here for part of the season. The only players that were here all season long and received significant rotation were Daniel Paladini and Dan Gargan. Everyone else rarely featured or featured all the time when they were here.

End of the Season Starting XI

A prime example of what I'm talking about is the stats for minutes played starting with the July 28th game against San Jose and running through the regular season finale vs. D.C. Johnson; Anibaba, Friedrich, Berry, Segares; Nyarko, Pardo, Pause, Fernandez; Rolfe, MacDonald was the XI whenever Klopas could get them on the field. The chart below shows that in the last 14 games of the season, those 11 players made up over 85% of the total minutes played.

Player Minutes
Johnson 1260
Berry 1260
Rolfe 1240
Anibaba 1233
Friedrich 1121
Nyarko 1096
Segares 1079
MacDonald 1033
Fernandez 943
Pause 859
Pardo 706
Top 11 Total 11830
Team Total 13858
Top 11 % 85.4%

The exceptions to this starting 11 are noted for each game below.

7/28: Gonzalo Segares didn't start because of a suspension. Alvaro Fernandez didn't start because he was just acquired. Sherjill MacDonald didn't start because he just became eligible to play.

8/4: Marco Pappa and Alvaro Fernandez start in favor of Patrick Nyarko on the wing. Sherjill MacDonald comes on as a halftime substitute for Dominic Oduro. Patrick Nyarko logs 40 minutes after substituting in for Alvaro Fernandez.

8/12: Patrick Nyarko is an early sub logging 46 minutes after replacing an injured Logan Pause.

8/18: Daniel Paladini starts for the injured Logan Pause. Marco Pappa sits in favor of Alvaro Fernandez and Patrick Nyarko.

8/22: Daniel Paladini starts for the injured Logan Pause. Alvaro Fernandez sits in favor of Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko.

9/2: Daniel Paladini starts for the injured Logan Pause. Marco Pappa is sold between 8/22 and 9/2. Logan Pause makes a late substitution return.

9/12: No change to the starting 11 above.

9/15: Alex starts for the injured Pavel Pardo.

9/22: Alex starts for the injured Pavel Pardo.

9/28: Alex starts for the injured Pavel Pardo.

10/3: Dan Gargan starts for the injured Gonzalo Segares. Daniel Paladini starts for the injured Pavel Pardo.

10/6: Daniel Paladini starts for the injured Pavel Pardo.

10/20: Daniel Paladini starts for the injured Pavel Pardo. Dan Gargan starts in the place of the injured Arne Friedrich.

10/27: No changes to the starting 11 above.

10/31: No changes to the starting 11 above for the playoff game.

2013 Outlook

Klopas from the same article linked at the top:

"Injuries and suspensions also factor into what you do you but yes, you need to have quality and depth in certain spots for those times you're having to play three games in a week and you have to travel, you have to look into that. There are certain spots that you can't change or rotate.

The continuity and the ability to play with certain guys over and over again is important. To know their tendencies, their weaknesses and their strengths is very valuable in a game and something that doesn't come overnight."

The first line of this quote and the Fire's starting XI pattern for the end of the season make Klopas look like a hypocrite at best or completely unaware at worst. I suggest Fire fans and outside observers alike take the whole quote into consideration. Repeated for emphasis:

"The continuity and the ability to play with certain guys over and over again is important. To know their tendencies, their weaknesses and their strengths is very valuable in a game and something that doesn't come overnight."

This is something I've argued in my carryover minutes theory. On September 29th I used current carryover minutes to come up with the following conclusion:

As the 2012 MLS Regular Season comes to a close, history suggests Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC, Houston Dynamo, San Jose Earthquakes or LA Galaxy will win the MLS Cup. The 2010 Colorado Rapids give some hope to the teams on the outside like Chicago, D.C., Seattle, Columbus, New York, and Dallas but it seems to be a puncher's chance.

Is it possible that Klopas had a similar prospective on the Fire's chances in 2012 and he sacrificed the idea of running a healthy rotation in favor of establishing 'the continuity and the ability to play with certain guys over and over again' for 2013? The top 11 players he started down the stretch are all returning to the team this year. This theory would add a great deal of sense to playing the same basic lineup despite having 3 games in the same week. Either way, roster rotation is going to be one of the biggest things to watch as Klopas enters his second full year as head coach of the Chicago Fire.