Thanks to Major League Soccer’s collective bargaining agreement new Fire coach Frank Yallop had no chance to see his players on the field. That’ll have to wait until preseason training begins in January.
Hired as Frank Klopas’ replacement last week, Yallop began work with the Fire after arriving back in town from San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday night. Since MLS didn’t allow non-playoff teams to train beyond Wednesday, Yallop scheduled exit physicals for the players on Wednesday and began one-on-one meetings with them on Thursday with a season-ending press conference mixed in. The players will all be gone on Friday.
"It was good to speak to the players. That’s important from the way I go about things,’’ said Yallop. "I get to know their personalities and see how they fit in with each other and how I’ll do things here. Good times are ahead, hopefully.’’
Yallop won’t see his players for three months, but he’ll be busy.
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"There’s just a bunch of planning,’’ he said. ``A lot goes into it – budget issues we’ve got to get to, picking up people’s options, the re-entry draft -- all those things that come into the role I have. I’ve got to get a staff together. I’ll need some help around here.’’
Yallop dismissed all of Klopas’ assistants except strength and conditioning coach Tony Jouax. While Jouax oversees offseason conditioning efforts Yallop will begin the rebuilding effort for a club that missed the MLS playoffs in three of the last four years and hasn’t won a postseason match since 2009.
"It’s exciting building from scratch,’’ he said. "There’s not many times you get to do that. I’m really looking forward to the preseason, once we get the logistics stuff out of the way.’’
No dates or sites are official for preseason training yet, though a return to Florida for at least some of it appears likely. One change is assured. The Fire won’t defend its title in the Carolina Challenge Cup – the final preseason event during the Klopas years. The Fire won’t be returning to that four-team March round robin tournament in Charleston, S.C.
Yallop hopes to have a full staff on board in two-three weeks.
"There’s quite a few positions to fill,’’ he said. "We’ll have two new assistants for sure, maybe three. One may be in a scouting role. And, I’ll need a technical director to help me. We’ll make sure we have the right people to do that.’’
Understandably, Yallop was non-committal about roster changes. Last year’s team started 2-7-2 and finished 14-13-7. The Fire finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, losing a tiebreaker to Montreal for the fifth and final playoff spot.
"Last season’s gone. We can’t do anything about it,’’ said Yallop. "But it’s tough to watch the playoffs. (The Fire) had a well-rounded roster, but there’s always pieces you could add. You can bring quality in certain spots. But, looking it as a whole, we’re not far off. Looking in general from the outside, there’s not many changes to make – maybe get a little more experience, and a little more fight and drive.’’
Mike Magee, Logan Pause, Bakary Soumare and Jeff Larentowicz joined Yallop at the farewell press conference for 2013. They had little to say, as Yallop did most of the talking.
"If we’re honest, we have to say we’re disappointed,’’ said Pause, the team captain. "We fell short. The way this league is structured, at the beginning of the season we dug ourselves a little hole but from June on we had the best record in the league. That was great, but we still fell short. We’re excited about what’s ahead. We want to bring back a winning tradition.’’
The remainder of the season offers only one glimmer of excitement for the Fire – Magee’s bid for Most Valuable Player. Landon Donovan, one of his former teammates with the Los Angeles Galaxy, said Magee should win that award, but Magee downplayed it.
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"I still have a bad taste about the season,’’ he said. "Landon Donovan’s a good friend of mine, so I’ll take that for what it is, but I’ve given little thought to any individual accolades.’’
Yallop was the first of at least five new coaches hired for the 2014 MLS season. The second was Gregg Berhalter, who was hired by the Columbus Crew. The Crew named Brian Bliss the interim head coach after firing Robert Warzycha during the season, and Columbus made a brief playoff run, going 4-4-0 after the coaching switch. Still, Crew ownership wanted a complete overhaul for the next campaign.
FC Dallas, Vancouver and Chivas USA are still looking for new field bosses.
Meanwhile, the league’s playoff teams resume the battle for berths in the Dec. 7 MLS Cup final on Thursday night. Los Angeles visits Real Salt Lake and Seattle is at Portland in the Western Conference semifinals. The Galaxy and Timbers won the first matches of those two-game, home-and-home series to be decided by aggregate goals.
The Eastern Conference semifinals ended Wednesday with the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City advancing to the conference finals, which begin on Saturday in Houston.
The Dynamo reached the Eastern final for the third straight year with a road win over the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday while SKC was eliminating the New England Revolution. New York had won the Supporters Shield for best regular season record in MLS.
"The tightest I’ve ever seen it in both conferences,’’ said Yallop. "It’s amazing, really. This shows the quality and parity of the league.’’
Houston, though, is the story of the postseason so far. The Dynamo, losers in the last two MLS Cups to Los Angeles, has also been playing in the CONCACAF Champions League competition. Those commitments required Houston to play five matches in the last 14 days, with road trips to Panama, D.C. United and New York mixed in.