WASHINGTON – It’s a Friday night, the evening of Frank Klopas’ 57th birthday. But he’s about 700 miles away from his wife Sophia and their home in Chicago, and the Greek restaurants they might otherwise be picking from for a celebratory meal.
Instead, Chicago Fire FC’s head coach is sitting in a hotel lobby in the District of Columbia, having just flown in ahead of an MLS Eastern Conference clash with D.C. United the following night. A mechanical problem with the team bus delayed the trip from the airport, and now he’s scheduled to speak with a journalist before he can join other members of the Fire’s technical staff for a quiet dinner, further extending an already-long day.
A professional coach’s life is generally a migratory one. Constant journeys outside of the Windy City like this one are part of why Klopas told himself years ago he’d sworn off from that lifestyle for good – to say nothing of the stress, the pressure, the constant possibility of losing a job, having to move on, start over somewhere else.
“I was in Montréal almost two years [a 2013-15 stint in charge of the then-Impact, now CF Montréal] and came back; I kind of thought at that time that I was done with coaching because I didn't want to leave again,” Klopas recalled to MLSsoccer.com. “My wife stayed behind [in Chicago]. She had her job, and it was difficult for me. She has a real-estate business with her brother, so that was doing really well.
“There was no point of her leaving because when you're a coach, the clock is always ticking. That's what I always said: No matter what you do, the clock is ticking.”
A close bond
Yet here he is back in the saddle again, in his third stint as the Fire’s sideline boss and fourth as an MLS manager, trying to end a six-year Audi MLS Cup Playoffs drought after taking the helm following Ezra Hendrickson’s dismissal in May.
“Not because I wanted it,” Klopas pointedly emphasized, noting he’s repeatedly shifted towards ‘upstairs’ roles with more of a long-range remit over the years, like roster-building and scouting and youth development and television broadcast analysis.
“I love the being there every day and working, and preparing the team. I mean, the stress, the worst part of it is that when the team goes out for warmups, you're just sitting there in the room waiting for the game to start. And then you're just, always, a million things in your mind. You're thinking about everything.”
Navigating a path through this eventful season is the latest chapter in a relationship that dates back to the birth of his hometown team. In 1998, Klopas was a star player on the Bob Bradley-coached squad which did what no other expansion side has done since: Win an MLS Cup in year one, which they garnished five days later by winning the US Open Cup, their first of four Open Cup titles in their first decade of existence.
Klopas wasn’t born in Chicago. His family emigrated from southern Greece when he was a young child. But he’s undoubtedly a native son. He came of age as a teenage phenom out of Mather High School who signed with the beloved, bygone Sting in the dying days of the old North American Soccer League.
“Klopas has captured Sting fans’ attention with his charismatic personality, rugged good looks and, above all, talent. Loads of talent,” reads a Chicago Tribune article from 1987.
After the NASL imploded, Klopas built a career anyway, first back in Greece with AEK Athens and later as a US men’s national team standout as the program labored to fashion a competitive team for the 1994 World Cup on home soil. When MLS took flight he played for the Wiz, Sporting Kansas City’s original incarnation, before what proved a triumphant homecoming with the Fire.
He’s since served in multiple roles at the club, from strength and conditioning trainer to assistant coach to technical director to on-air commentator, some of them on more than one occasion. While his relationship with the Fire has morphed and evolved over the years, his love for them, and their city, has not. Nor has his dedication to the game.
“Very simple rules,” Klopas said of his leadership philosophy, “but the one thing is that we come in with the freakin’ passion and attitude that we’re fortunate and blessed to be doing what we're doing.
“My parents worked three jobs and they had a smile on their face, believe me. My dad didn't have the talent to play, but if I’d tell him, ‘Do you want to play or go work in a factory, what would you do?’ Believe me, he would do that. So we’re blessed and that's what I try to get across.
“You need to put the effort and you need to show people how you compete, what you put on the field,” he later added. “That's expected in a city like Chicago. The people that are there, money doesn't fall like off the tree like they think in Greece. People have to come and work. If you don't work, you’re in the street. Our mentality has to be like that.”
In an industry where immediate results are expected and self-advancement is the norm, Klopas is a rare outlier: A figure who by his own declarations isn’t going anywhere. Locally rooted, he can insist on the Fire’s long-term interests taking first priority, with a history and allegiance that matches or exceeds that of owner Joe Mansueto.
Like Andrew Hauptman and Raphaël Wicky before him, Mansueto is the latest in a series of Fire decision-makers who’ve asked Klopas to come back and pitch in for the cause under new circumstances, even after he’d already done so in the past and weathered disappointment in the process.
“I had to give them their space also, and I didn’t want to kind of come in and overpower anything. I wanted the club to do well,” Klopas recalled of his return after the stint in Quebec. “That's when I started doing the TV stuff. And I just said, you know what, I love this. I don't want to coach anymore because I don't want to leave Chicago. This is my home, and I wasn't going to do that to my wife, also knowing that her job is a lot more stable than mine and she's making a lot more money than I am.
“I just wanted them to know, I'm here to help in any way I can. So I stayed a lot longer than I wanted to. And then when things weren't going well, they asked me to stay longer,” he added. “It's always tough, because you build a relationship with people, and then boom, I’m back into the fold again now.”
With his old teammates C.J. Brown and Zach Thornton also on staff, the current vintage of the Fire are never far away from reminders of the club’s proud roots.
“Those two guys have been great because they've been involved in every championship that the team has had. So no one can transmit the passion and the love [better],” said Klopas. “When we lose games, everybody's down. But I think for us, it hits home a lot, it impacts us because this is our team. This is my team – no matter where I go in the world, the Fire is my team.”
"I'm freaking tough and honest with him"
Klopas has had his hands full. Chicago have for some time ranked among the league’s highest spenders on their roster and recently renewed their focus on their academy to good effect, with homegrown goalkeeper Gaga Slonina making a record-breaking transfer to Chelsea FC over the winter and midfielder Brian Gutiérrez blossoming into one of MLS’s brightest young prospects.
“I remember the first game that we put him in, and he's come such a long way,” said Klopas of ‘Guti.’ “When he's on the field, you can see the level of respect from the players – they look for him, they give him the ball. He's a difference-maker. And he needs to do a lot more, and he can. But he still has a big room to grow and develop.”
Yet first-team results have stubbornly failed to meet expectations, and scrutiny has duly increased on the effectiveness of sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer. Even a success story like Gutiérrez only draws closer attention to the relative underachievement of Designated Player Xherdan Shaqiri by comparison.
“When you come in as a DP, there's more on your shoulders to perform. And he doesn't shy away,” said Klopas. “For me, he's the kind of guy that, you can't sugarcoat stuff with him. With Shaq, you have to put pressure on him. And that's what I try to do. I think when it's not good enough, I tell him it's not good enough, and you need to do more. And that's where I feel he performs the best.”
Here Klopas harks back to his teenage years with the Sting, whose European contingent gave him a stern introduction to the demands of the professional environment.
“I grew up in the NASL, playing with seven German guys and a German coach. They killed me. They killed me!” he recounted. “There were days when I didn't want to go to training. I was saying please, I hope this car gets a flat tire. But man. I played with [Karl-Heinz] Granitza and these guys, if the ball is not at his feet, they would f--king kill me. It's a different time, I get it. But that's the mentality we grew up with, and [Shaqiri] did, too.
“He actually enjoys that a lot more. And that's what I do. I have a relationship with him, but I'm freaking tough and honest with him. And I expect a lot more, and he knows it. He knows it. But he does better when you put responsibility on him.”
Though Chicago, to their chagrin, are widely perceived to be in the ‘sleeping giant’ category of MLS, it’s not for lack of investment or interest by Mansueto. A new training facility is set to open soon, rising crops of academy talent are pushing through and there's a firm commitment to drawing big crowds back to Soldier Field sooner or later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Klopas professes himself a believer.
“Even when he sees me down,” he said of Mansueto, “he would always just tap me on the shoulder and just say, ‘Frank, don't worry, we will get there.’ I was like, wow, I wish I’d known an owner like this in Greece when I was playing. It was a little bit different.
“He’s just an incredible human being, a man who loves the city, he's very bullish on the city. He wants really to give opportunities to all the kids in the city to have a place where they can play. Like when I started playing with the Sting back in the NASL days, the Sting, that was my dream. And I think the Fire should be every kid's dream. If we can build a team [with] 60-70% of homegrown players, that would be awesome. That would be the goal.”
The Fire’s trip to D.C. ended badly, in the form of a 4-0 thumping by United that extended what would turn out to be a seven-game winless skid, their postseason hopes dwindling further with each passing result, until a tense, precious, 1-0 road win over the New York Red Bulls last weekend. And just like that, Chicago can entertain hope again as Inter Miami CF visit a sold-out Soldier Field for another six-pointer on Wednesday night (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
Postseason qualification could have a marked effect on Mansueto’s big-picture decisions this winter, with another major rebuilding process very much in play. For an organization whose second and third decades have thus far failed to come anywhere near the success of their first, the international spotlight that follows even a Lionel Messi-less Miami squad also represents a vital chance to reintroduce themselves – including and especially to a local soccer community where many grew disillusioned long ago.
“You get fans maybe that normally will not come out, but they will come out to watch that one game. You perform well, I mean, they will come back,” said Klopas, pointing to the positive impressions his team made in a riveting Leagues Cup knockout clash with Mexican giants Club América in August at a packed SeatGeek Stadium, the suburban venue the Fire vacated under Mansueto to return downtown. “Those opportunities are golden, and we got to take advantage of those opportunities.
“It's a big market, we need to get results. I think we've underperformed in the past with the results; they need to get better. You need to win. People will come. It’s a big soccer community, they know soccer. You cannot fool them.”
Now tied on 37 points with Montréal and D.C. with a game in hand on the latter, just one point back of NYCFC in eighth place, the Fire have a real chance to grab one of the East’s Wild Card berths with two positive results at home this week, with Charlotte FC visiting Lake Shore Drive this Saturday (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
They’d rather not have to depend on a result on Decision Day, when they travel to Citi Field to play NYCFC, but that too constitutes a chance to take points from a direct competitor. Klopas can promise, though, his Fire will keep fighting until the end.
“There's no secrets,” he said. “If you want the secret, anything that comes fast, it's never good. It's never going to last. The road to success is a hard one. But it's worth traveling. And I feel we've been on that path for a long time with the team. We're very close. That's why it's huge to take this step.
“It’s either going to be a good offseason or a really depressing one, drinking a lot of wine. So I don't know, one of the two, either way.”