Frank Klopas, March 9, 2013

Commentary: Chitown icon Frank Klopas abandons the familiar with surprise move to Montreal Impact

Is your team's coach a mayor, or a mercenary?

It's a generalization, to be sure, but throughout the history of MLS two breeds of managers can be discerned: The hometown heroes who enter the technical area with their club and/or city more or less tattooed on their heart (think Mike Petke, Ben Olsen and Jason Kreis), and the hired hands who bring new ideas and experiences but don't quite have the team's colors coursing through their veins, at least not at first (Sigi Schmid, Hans Backe, Marco Schällibaum).

“You sign a contract to get fired,” the well-traveled Backe told in a revealing conversation last year, his final season at the helm of the New York Red Bulls. “When you have done so many years and have been involved in all the different countries with the pressure and the media and things like that, I think at one point you just tell yourself, 'I can't take this serious.'”

On Wednesday the Montreal Impact named Frank Klopas as their “director of player personnel” and third head coach in as many years in MLS, which looks on first glance like a fascinating meeting between an organization and an individual at opposite ends of this spectrum.

Ignore the wisecracks about “retreads” and “recycles” – Klopas hardly deserves those dismissive labels. He's always been fiercely loyal to his roots. As an ambitious young attacking player he returned to Greece, the country of his birth, to play for AEK Athens (and later Apollon) in the 1980s and '90s, earning success in the form of four league championships and two cup triumphs.

He remained committed to the States, however, taking part in the 1994 World Cup with the US national team and joining MLS from its inception, his best memories made with his hometown Chicago Fire in their strong '98 and '99 campaigns. And when the time came to transition into coaching, he stayed in the Windy City, paying his dues in the Fire front office and building his skills as a youth coach before becoming the club's technical director in 2008, and head coach in 2011.

Klopas was seen as such a “Fire guy” that some observers around the league doubted he would be able to move elsewhere should a happy ending prove elusive.

But here he is, taking on a new job – an entirely new challenge in a highly unfamiliar locale, no less – less than two months after parting ways with the Chitown club despite a 39-29-23 record at the helm.

The Impact proved in 2013 that they can stand toe to toe with the MLS elite, yet so much about the club remains unique. As a community, Montreal speaks a different language and lives by different sensibilities than much of Canada, much less the US, and the Impact's European-inspired framework features both a technical director (former MLS goalkeeper Matt Jordan) and a powerful sporting director in Nick De Santis.

And at the top of the pyramid stands Joey Saputo (pictured at right), the charismatic and committed owner who represents a new breed of MLS investor not content to merely sit back and watch passively from the luxury suites. His name is branded on the Impact's home ground, his substantial financial investment has graced the roster with pricey overseas talent and his fiery personality does not take well to losing.

By the past standards of MLS expansion sides, Montreal made a very solid debut in 2012 but missed out on the postseason, so young coach Jesse Marsch departed. In came Schällibaum, “the Swiss Volcano,” and L'Impact prospered in the early stages of the just-concluded season, only to be soured by a stretch-run collapse and ill-tempered playoff exit.

Saputo's displeasure with the circumstances was clear and he has now gone in a different direction again, bringing in Klopas to lead a veteran-heavy squad eager to make the most of what will likely be star striker Marco Di Vaio's final year in 2014. Klopas has signed a three-year deal, but make no mistake: immediate success is expected.

Many felt Klopas was hard done by in Chicago, where a murky chain of command seemed to complicate personnel decisions. But he now faces what might be an even more delicate challenge.

Over the next few weeks he must situate himself and his family in the City of Saints, come to grips with his new team's roster needs, assess its incumbent talent and hash out an effective division of responsibilities with Jordan and De Santis in time to make the best decisions when the Combine, SuperDraft and international transfer window arrive next month.

It's a familiar challenge in a new place. Once thought to be a Chicago lifer, Klopas will spend the infamously brutal Québec winter working up a sweat.


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