It’s not all that unusual for a head coach to miss a game for disciplinary reasons. Fire coach Frank Klopas missed two matches last season and the results weren’t so bad – a win over Chivas USA and home loss to Philadelphia.
Friday’s match against Sporting Kansas City, however, goes beyond the unusual.
Not only will Klopas be missing from the bench, but so will assistant Leo Percovich. That means the other assistant, Mike Matkovich, will be in charge when the Fire (9-10-4) tries to stay in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoff race.
"Pretty interesting, huh?" said Matkovich, who will have only goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde and strength and conditioning specialist Tony Jouraux for coaching company while the game’s in progress.
In addition to staying off the sidelines, Klopas and Percovich can’t be in the locker room before the match and can’t enter it until after the game is over. They’ll be able to watch the match, but that’s all.
"There’ll be no communication," said Matkovich, who doesn’t feel the situation is that much out of the ordinary. "We’ve had 33 weeks together. If we don’t know our roles by now we’re all failing. This isn’t rocket science, and this isn’t my first rodeo."
Matkovich, 50, has plenty of coaching experience. A long-time Chicago area youth coach, he was also head coach of the U.S. under-18 men’s team from 2009-11 and an assistant with Major League Soccer clubs Chivas USA (2007) and Toronto FC (2008). Matkovich, in his second stint as a Fire assistant, was a fill-in at Chivas USA when then-head coach Preki wasn’t available and helped make the calls in the two matches Klopas missed last season.
The absence of Klopas and Percovich stem from the emotional final minutes of last Saturday’s 2-0 road loss to the New England Revolution, which snapped the Fire’s four-game unbeaten streak.
Not only will the two coaches be off the sideline on Friday because of their actions in the waning moments of a difficult loss. So will central defender Bakary Soumare, whose confrontation with a New England trainer started the disciplinary process.
Soumare drew a red card, then Klopas was dismissed for joining in and Percovich was penalized for his post-game reactions to it all.
"The whole thing was a little silly," said Matkovich, who preferred to focus on the next match instead of the last one. "It was just unfortunate, but you can’t get tied up in one game. We’ll brush it off. We’ve got 11 games left and 33 points available – and we need points."
The Fire, five points behind the Houston Dynamo – holder of the fifth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, will be in capable hands with Matkovich handling game-time decisions, but going without Soumare against the East’s first-place team could present problems. His midseason arrival in a trade with Philadelphia was a big reason the Fire went on a 7-2-2 run that revived its playoff hopes.
Interestingly the Fire will honor the man Soumare replaced at Friday’s match. Arne Friedrich, the German defender who retired in June after hamstring and hip injuries wouldn’t heal, was the Fire’s Defender-of-the-Year in 2012.
Now the Fire has several options in covering for Soumare. One is to move Jalil Anibaba from right back to a central defender’s role beside Austin Berry. That would mean captain Logan Pause or little-used veteran Mike Videira would play on the right side. Another possibility has Anibaba staying on the right with the promising but inexperienced Hunter Jumper playing beside second-year man Berry in the middle. Jumper, a second-round pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, played in only one first team match this season – a 3-1 win over New York on April 7.
On the more positive side, the Fire will regain forward Chris Rolfe, who was held out at New England with a hamstring problem, and could get outside midfielder Patrick Nyarko back after missing two matches with a concussion. He’s been given medical clearance to play and returned to training on Wednesday.
The Fire used to own the Kansas City franchise, which began in 1996 with Klopas one of its offensive mainstays. The Fire is 15-4-2 in matches played against Kansas City in Chicago over the last 16 seasons. This season, though, the teams have met twice and the Fire hasn’t won yet. They played a 0-0 match in Kansas City on March 16 and SKC won 2-1 at Toyota Park on July 7.
SKC (11-8-6) is tied for the East lead with the New York Red Bulls. Both have 39 points, eight more than the seventh-place Fire, in 25 matches but SKC has struggled since the MLS All-Star break with three losses in four games. The lone win, though, was a 3-0 romp over New England the week before the Revs put away the Fire.
Peter Vermes, the SKC head coach, was Klopas’ teammate on the U.S. national team from 1988-94 and – like Klopas – Vermes had his problems with officiating last week. He blamed a series of bad calls for his team’s 1-0 road lost to San Jose on Sunday.
SKC is in the throes of a schedule that is busier than the Fire’s. The club is also in the CONCACAF Champions League and will play CD Olimpia in Honduras on Tuesday. SKC had a banner season in 2012, winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and ruling the Eastern Conference during the regular season. In 2000 the Fire and Kansas City Wizards met in the MLS Cup final, Kansas City winning 1-0 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.