[MLS INSIDER] Working with head coach Carlos de los Cobos and director of player personnel Mike Jeffries, technical director Frank Klopas, the former U.S. international, has renovated the Chicago Fire with an intriguing blend of players from the Americas and Eastern Europe.
Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves, meet Josep Mikulic and Bratislav Ristic. Orr Barouch, shake hands with Jalil Anibaba. Gabriel Ferrari, this is Marko Maric. All are among the newcomers the Fire has brought in this season.
It’s not usual to see nearly a dozen – or more -- nations represented on an MLS roster, but few have been as heavily weighted toward Eastern Europe at one end, and South and Central America at the other – with lots of Americans in the middle -- as is Chicago, 2011.
The roster reflects the backgrounds and experience of the men in charge: de los Cobos – a native of Mexico who left the El Salvador national team to take the Fire job – and Klopas, a pro player on both sides of the Atlantic, and of Greek birth but steeped in the American game. Assisting in the process as director of player personnel Jeffries, the former Dallas head coach (and Fire assistant coach).
How the mix of playing styles and management influences will work in the rough-and-tumble world of MLS is not to be discerned any time soon. But as Klopas says, “So far, so good, and we’ll go from there.”
The Fire has tied FC Dallas and beaten Sporting Kansas City in its first two league games, and downed Colorado, 2-1, in the U.S. Open Cup. In both league games, Chaves scored and Puerari drew an opponent's red card. Against the Rapids, Anibaba, a rookie out of North Carolina, scored an incredible goal from nearly 40 yards, and former Chivas USA defender Yamith Cuesta wore Fire red for the first time.
Croatian Mikulic and Uruguayan forwards Puerari and Chaves have been drawing a lot of attention, and rightly so, yet SuperDraft pick Anibaba and young Colombian defender Cuesta are among a dozen new players plucked from the college ranks, domestic pro teams, and clubs far and wide in an attempt to atone for Chicago’s second postseason miss in 13 seasons since its expansion year of 1998.
“Carlos brings a lot of experience and knowledge of soccer in certain parts of the world,” says Klopas of the former. “I do a lot of the traveling, scouting players and stay in touch with technical directors of other teams. Mike does more of the contracts and the salary cap and that stuff on the player side with Carlos. I have a data base of players that’s always varied depending on what our needs are.
“When you play, you travel around the world and you play with guys who now are in certain positions and you stay in touch with them from those days. That comes in handy. I built a lot of relationships around the world, I have good connections in Eastern Europe, so this job has been good for me.”
Klopas is a soccer icon in Chicago. His family moved to the city from Greece when he was 8, he played professionally indoors (NASL Sting) and outdoors (Fire), and also coached the indoor Storm before taking his current post in January, 2008. “Of course, I want to stay here, this is a great city, why leave?” he says.
When Chivas USA waived Cuesta in February, Klopas consulted Fire assistant coach Leo Percovich, who had left the Western Conference club to join the Fire, and swung a trade to secure the rights. Klopas got connected with Mikulic, who was playing in Croatia, through Croatian national team head coach and former international Slavan Bilic. Maric, who is Croatian, was playing in Greece for Skoda Xanthi.
Ferrari’s career had nosedived since he signed with Italian club Sampdoria after a fine showing for the U.S. at the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada.
In addition to signing Cuesta last week, the Fire sent Calen Carr to Houston in exchange for Dominic Oduro. Early in March, Chicago signed Barouch, a young Israeli who had been playing in Tigres youth system in Mexico, and former Rev Michael Videira, loaned to AC St. Louis (USSF-Div. 2) last season.
Players come to MLS from just about anywhere, but nowhere else can be found common ground. Klopas tries to lubricate the machinery that can perplex and exasperate those unfamiliar with the morays and methods of MLS.
“It’s about the relationships and developing them so people know how this league works,” says Klopas of luring players from abroad and informing them and their representatives of what they’re getting into. “It’s still not so easy to bring players in. A lot of the talented guys in Europe want to stay there, to be close, so maybe they can be seen for the national team or a bigger club over there.
“I think it’s tilted a little bit more to MLS because of some of the high-profile players we’ve been bringing in and doing well. There’s more televising of MLS games in Europe, so the interest is growing, I can tell you that for sure.”