Frank Klopas: Chicago's soccer ambassador

Inside Look: Frank Klopas - Part One

Frank Klopas: Chicago's soccer ambassador
February 6, 2013, 5:30 pm
Share This Post
Len Ziehm

When Frank Klopas arrived in Chicago he hated the place. Now, at least in the city’s soccer community, Chicago couldn’t have a better ambassador.

Next month Klopas will begin his second full season as the head coach of the Chicago Fire, but his roots in both the city and his sport go far deeper than that.

The Klopas saga began when his parents brought him here from Prosimna, Greece when he was 8 years old.

"I was crying. I hated that trip," he recalled. "It took two-to-three weeks because I never left the house. But then you start getting situated, you meet friends. You adapt."

As soon he was playing soccer for his church team. That changed everything for the good. As a player he did most everything a kid from Chicago could only dream about doing in that sport.

In high school he was a superstar, leading Mather to the Chicago Public School championship in 1982, and immediately after graduation he signed with the city’s pro franchise, the Sting.

The Sting was basically an indoor team when Klopas was on the roster, and he scored 62 goals in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1982-1988. Outdoor soccer then wasn’t anything like it is now in the U.S., but Klopas’ indoor performances led to a call-up by the U.S. men’s national team in 1987. He played for the U.S. in the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea.

With the Sting folding in 1988 Klopas was ready for bigger and better things in Europe. He returned to Greece to play for AEK Athens from 1988-1992. During that stretch he got into 46 matches and scored six goals as his club won Greek Super League titles in 1989 and 1992 and the Greek League Cup in 1990.

The international experience led to Klopas getting another U.S. national team call-up, this time for the FIFA World Cup. He made the U.S. team, which was no small feat, but didn’t see any playing time as the U.S. advanced to the knockout round for the first time since 1930.

The U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, which opened with matches at Soldier Field. It was to trigger rapid American growth in the sport, but when it was over there still was no pro league in the U.S.

Klopas returned to Greece, playing 10 matches from Apollon Athens from 1994-1996 while continuing with the U.S. national team in the 1995 Copa America tournament. One of his biggest goals ever came in a 3-0 upset of Argentina that helped the U.S. to a fourth-place finish in that competition.

By 1998 the U.S. finally had a bona fide pro circuit, Major League Soccer, but it didn’t have a Chicago team. So Klopas spent two seasons with the Kansas City Wizards, where he scored seven goals in 54 matches, before the Fire was formed for the 1998 season.

That inaugural season was a great one for Klopas and, to date, the best ever for the franchise. Despite being an expansion team the Fire won both the MLS and U.S. Open Cups. Klopas scored two goals in the Fire’s first home game at Soldier Field and knocked in the Golden Goal against Columbus that concluded the epic sweep in the Open Cup final at the lakefront venue.

The Fire won three more Open Cups, but never had another season like that first one when Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, Chris Armas – and, of course, Klopas – took the city by storm.

"We had a lot of great players, but everyone’s main focus was the team," said Klopas of the '98 unit. "We had some big egos, but everybody did everything they could for the success of the team."

Klopas retired as a player after the 1999 season and entered coaching right away as the team’s strength and conditioning coach. He later was head coach for two seasons with the Chicago Storm, one of the city’s many entries in the Major Indoor Soccer League.

When Andrew Hauptman took over ownership of the Fire he wanted Klopas in the organization. He just didn’t know where he’d fit in. He eventually assumed the duties of technical director in 2008, a position that included the club’s first major venture into overseas scouting. He was thrust back into coaching when the club endured the first major slump in franchise history under Carlos de los Cobos.

De los Cobos was retained after a difficult 2010 campaign, one that followed losses in the Eastern Conference title game in both 2008 and 2009 under Denis Hamlett. The Fire showed no signs of recovering in 2011, going 1-4-6 before Klopas replaced de los Cobos.

"It wasn’t something I was looking for at the time, because everyone in the organization did all we could to make sure our coach (de los Cobos) was successful," said Klopas. "But when things weren’t going well we made the change, and I was asked about the opportunity to step in. I just felt the transition would be the smoothest because I knew the players and the environment."

Klopas revived the team immediately, taking the Fire to the U.S. Open Cup final for an MLS record sixth time, and the 7-2-1 finish in MLS led to a .500 season (9-9-16) despite the dismal start. Last season the Fire was even better, going 17-11-6 to qualify for postseason play after missing out the two previous campaigns.

The Fire has a veteran nucleus back for this season, which begins against the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy on the road on March 3. The home opener is March 9 against New England at Toyota Park. Klopas has endured the highs and lows as both a player and coach, and believes his upbringing is the reason. Both his parents are now retired and living in the U.S., but they set great examples for their son.

"In 27 years my mother never missed one day of work – not even a sick day," he said. "I look at where I am today, the opportunities I’ve had to be doing something I love doing," he said. "Every time I want to complain I put on the board '27' and look at that and say, 'I have nothing to complain about.'"

It’s a given that he’d like to win a championship as a coach, and he’d like to see his sport grow its profile in the U.S. as well.

"We've come a long way in a short time and we have a long way to go," he said. "It’s very difficult when you have other sports that have been around for 100 years. In this country sometimes everybody wants everything overnight, and it takes time."

Click here to watch the full episode of Inside Look as David Kaplan goes 1-on-1 with Klopas.