The dismissal last weekend of Frank Yallop as head coach is, officially, the fifth such change implemented since the team was sold to investor-operator Andrew Hauptmann, founder and chief executive of the private investment firm Andell Holdings. Along with replacing Yallop with technical director Brian Bliss, Hauptmann has hired longtime MLS and team executive Nelson Rodriguez as general manager.
Bliss will start his interim stint Wednesday in Montreal, where the hat-trick debut of Didier Drogba – whose allocation rights the Fire had traded to the Impact in exchange for rights to Brazilian striker Gilberto -- sent Chicago down to a 4-3 defeat that seriously dented its playoff hopes.
The Fire is lagging as the Eastern Conference’s last-place team and seems assured of missing the playoffs for a fifth time in the last six seasons. On Tuesday, the team announced that two starters, goalkeeper Sean Johnson and defender Eric Gehrig, will miss the rest of the season because of injuries.
So this quote uttered by Hauptmann when he bought the team slightly more than eight years ago is chillingly ironic: “Who in their right minds wouldn't want to own a sports team in Chicago?” Hauptman said. “It's the global game. We're interested in seeing it grow further in the U.S. and in Chicago.”
The game and the league have certainly grown since September 2007, but the Fire’s track record is bleak. A run of three straight playoff appearances under head coaches Juan Carlos Osorio and Denis Hamlett ended -- as did Hamlett’s tenure -- after the 2009 season, and average attendances figures have hovered around 15,000 as Carlos de los Cobos, Frank Klopas and Yallop have come and gone.
The Fire had managed just six wins -- and a league-record 18 ties -- in Yallop’s first season in charge, and he wrought extensive changes for the 2015 campaign. He bolstered the attack with Designated Players and a few other significant signings but the changes didn't translate into victories.
Midfielder Patrick Nyarko was drafted by Hamlett as the No. 7 overall pick in the 2008 SuperDraft and said of Yallop’s departure, “It’s a transitional period where everyone feels sorry for themselves and feels like they could have done a little bit more for things to be stabilized.
“But it happens, I’ve been through it a few times and obviously you just have to look forward and take the positives out of it. Obviously. we’re not happy that someone has to lose their job and I personally think, as players, we are as much to blame as the staff. But in this business someone has to take that responsibility and unfortunately the staff are the leaders and they have to take that.”
The ultimate responsibility is with Hauptmann, who inherited a team that had spoiled its fan base by winning the MLS Cup and Open Cup in its 1998 expansion season under head coach Bob Bradley and regularly trotted out star players -- Peter Nowak, Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov, Lubos Kubik and others – as well as extremely popular general manager, Peter Wilt, who was dismissed by AEG in 2005.
Several months before Hauptmann bought the team, it had signed Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco as its first Designated Player. Some observers speculated his was a ploy to make the team more attractive to potential buyers in Mexico, as was a couple of the head coaching hires. Yet no individual or group was ever definitively linked to the Fire as a potential buyer.
Attendance at Toyota Park -- which had opened in June, 2006 -- surged from an average of 14,088 in 2006 to 16,490 in 2007, and jumped again to 17,034 in 2008. But since Blanco’s departure in 2009, the attendances have sagged and only once has Chicago qualified for postseason play.
After his first season in charge, Yallop had said, “This club’s been very successful in the past, so the expectations are higher. You’re expected to win, you’re expected to make the playoffs, you’re expected to be at the top because of past success even if it was a few years ago. The crowds have been great to us throughout the whole year. They’re starved for success and I’m hoping in the next couple of years we can start to get wins and do well.”
The team’s record with Designated Players post-Blanco wasn’t good – the list of Sherjill McDonald, Arevalo Rios, Federico Puppo, Juan Anangono and Nery Castillo reads like a Who’s Who of bad moves – yet Hauptmann green-lighted the signings of DPs David Accam, Kennedy Igboanike and Shaun Maloney, as well as the acquisition of Brazilians Adailton and Guly do Prado.
“He’s been fantastic,” said Yallop at the time. “I can’t understand why he gets a bad rap in Chicago. He’s put a lot of money into this club, he’s tried his best to get this franchise back to where we all want it to be. He’s very supportive of all his staff. I’ve been here a year and we’ve had great conversations about building and if we lose a game there’s never an angry word, it’s what can we do to build and get better.
“He’s very supportive and a great owner to work for, that’s for sure. He’s hands-on but he’s got his little bit of distance living in L.A. He’s very much on top of things in Chicago and he wants this team to do well.”
Fire fans have been very critical of their absentee owner -- Hauptmann lives in Southern California, where Andell Holdings is based -- but a decent dose of success would alleviate those misgivings. Instead, Adailton lost a starting spot at the end of July; do Prado and the team mutually parted ways; Maloney was sold back to an English team after just seven months of commendable but hardly remarkable play; and the signing of Gilberto didn’t much change the team’s fortunes. Mike Magee, MVP winner in 2013, has missed more games than he played because of injuries during Yallop's tenure.
Accam and Igboananike -- whose salary was bought down with Targeted Allocation Money to open up a DP slot for Gilberto -- have done well enough, and with talented young players such as Matt Polster and Harry Shipp in the lineup, Johnson in goal, and veterans like Jeff Larentowicz on board, the fans have every right to wonder why Chicago is, according to the standings, the worst team in MLS. The expansion teams two and three spots above it, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, have struggled as expected yet seem to have the pieces in place for future success, on and off the field.
Rodriguez’s experience in the business and competitive disciplines are unmatched. A former head coach and assistant coach at the collegiate level, he has held executive position with the MetroStars, Chivas USA, MLS and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM).
The team has gone through several team presidents -- Wilt also served in that capacity prior to his departure -- and Bliss took over as technical director when Klopas left after the 2013 season. Klopas had been technical director from 2008 until his appointment as head coach in May 2011.