Changes were expected in the Fire front office after the club missed the Major League Soccer playoffs for the third time in four seasons. As it turned out both president of soccer operations Javier Leon and head coach Frank Klopas were the first to go.
California-based owner Andrew Hauptman dismissed Klopas during a dinner meeting on Tuesday night and the club confirmed that Leon was also let go to begin a rebuilding process.
Hauptman thanks Leon and Klopas for their work with the franchise. Both were hired for front office duties in 2008, shortly after Hauptman purchased the team. He was outspoken in his praise for Klopas.
"No one appreciates Frank’s passion, integrity and competitive spirit more than me," Hauptman said in a statement released by the team. "Frank has been a big part of this organization for many years as a player, Ring of Fire member, technical director and coach...He is a wonderful friend and will always be a member of the Fire family."
According to director of communications Dan Lobring, discussions were underway to keep Klopas with the club in another capacity.
Hauptman made his moves just hours after the team was battered 5-2 by the New York Red Bulls on Sunday afternoon when a playoff berth was on the line.
The Fire would have finished third in the Eastern Conference with a victory and owned a 1-0 lead – a good omen in that the club had lost only once previously under Klopas’ direction when scoring the first goal in a match. This time, though, the Fire collapsed.
A tie would have been good enough to put the Fire into postseason play for the second straight year, but the Red Bulls – making a successful bid to win the MLS Supporters Shield for best regular season record – scored four unanswered goals to turn the big match into a route.
"There have been many highlights over these years, but now is an appropriate time to make a transition to new leadership," Hauptman said. "Of course, making this team compete for championships on a consistent basis is our first priority."
Logan Pause and Jeff Larentowicz, the two players who wore the captain’s armband for the Fire this season, expressed sympathy for Leon and Klopas on the club’s website.
"I understand and respect the decision," said Pause, "but it’s a sad part of the business. Seeing people you’ve grown close with and developed relationships with and meant a lot to this club over the years, it isn’t easy. It’s part of the world we live in – the fine print that we all sign off on when we go into professional sports."
Pause’s own future with the club could also be in jeopardy after 11 seasons, the last three as official captain. Injuries limited his playing time early in the season and the arrival of Arevalo Rios kept Pause on the bench for most of the second half of the campaign.
Larentowicz, who wore the armband when Pause wasn’t on the field, said Leon and Klopas were "two guys who worked hard and, in a tough year, tried to make the best and almost pulled it off...If you don’t succeed, then things like this can happen."
Hauptman wasn’t the only MLS owner making coaching changes in the days between Sunday’s conclusion of the regular season and Wednesday’s start of postseason play.
FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman announced his resignation before the club’s last regular season game. Vancouver decided not to renew the contract of head coach Martin Rennie after the Whitecaps failed to make the playoffs. Rennie guided Vancouver into postseason play in 2012 and not this season, so his contract wasn’t renewed. He had a 24-25-19 record in his two seasons as the team’s head coach.
The San Jose Earthquakes, meanwhile, make Mark Watson their head coach. He handled the post on an interim basis after the early-season dismissal of Frank Yallop. An 11-5-3 record after the coaching change led to Watson keeping the job.
Klopas, a high school star at Mather and a Chicago soccer icon with playing stints for both the defunct Sting and Fire and a coaching stint with the indoor Chicago Storm, joined the Fire front office as technical director in January, 2008.
He was involved in the hiring of Carlos de los Cobos as head coach after the contract of Denis Hamlett was not renewed following the 2009 season. The Fire had gone to the Eastern Conference finals under Hamlett in 2008 and 2009 but struggled immediately under de los Cobos.
When the Fire got off to a 1-4-6 start in 2011 -- de los Cobos’ second season, Klopas took over the coaching reins. The Fire rallied for a 9-9-14 finish that campaign and barely missed the playoffs. The club qualified for the postseason in 2012, finishing 17-11-6 before losing 2-1 at home to the Houston Dynamo in the Knockout Round of the playoffs.
This season turned out the strangest in the Fire’s 16-year history. After the uplifting 2012 season the Fire got off to a 2-7-2 start. The acquisitions of striker Mike Magee and defender Bakary Soumare led to the Fire making a strong comeback that ended in a 14-13-7 record.
During the playoff push, however, the Fire dropped valuable points in three September matches by allowing goals in the 87th minute or beyond. After those disappointments the Fire won three straight in October, two of them on the road, before the collapse at New York.
Hauptman said there was no timetable for the club to name replacements for Leon or Klopas, but an early target could be Dec. 6 when the team conducts its annual open tryouts.
The early leading candidate emerging to replace Klopas is Jesse Marsch, a stalwart in the midfield in the early seasons of the Fire when Bob Bradley was the head coach. Marsch went into coaching after retiring as a player and was head coach of the Montreal Impact when it entered MLS in 2012. Despite a respectable 12-17-7 record with the expansion team Marsch and Montreal parted company after that season and he wasn’t involved in coaching this season.
Yallop could also be considered, especially if Hauptman opts to combine the general manager and head coaching duties. So could Peter Nowak, the Fire’s first captain. After retiring as a player he went on to coach D.C. United to an MLS Cup and was head coach of both the U.S. Olympic team and MLS’ Philadelphia Union. The Union fired him amidst a storm of controversy early in the 2012 season.
Leon, like Hauptman a California resident, assumed the presidency of soccer operations this season after Julian Posada stepped down as the team president. Posada’s title was left vacant in a restructuring of the front office. Leon has been managing director of Hauptman’s Andell Sports Group.