The path from uncompromising defender to head coach saw Denis Hamlett make the journey from the fields of MLS to the sidelines, where he is now the head coach of one of the top teams in MLS. Along the way the first black head coach in MLS has seen his share of memorable moments, including the construction of one of the league's most successful clubs.
Hamlett took time out from the Chicago Fire's pre-season to take part in the latest installment of The SBI Questions. The former Colorado Rapids defender answered questions on subjects ranging from where he plays Chris Rolfe to what he thinks of MLS teams bringing in more international players.
Here are Denis Hamlett's answers to The SBI Questions. Enjoy:
PABLO CHICAGO- Nyarko and Pappa are two players who showed promise in brief appearances last year. Will they have larger roles in the Fire's 2009 season?
HAMLETT– I think both Marco and Patrick have had outstanding pre-seasons. They’ve both been playing a lot of minutes this preseason because of Chris Rolfe’s situation with the national team. With Patrick being healthy this year he’s showing the signs of what we saw last year, as far as the ability to be a dynamic forward.
I think Marco is along those same lines, as far as being a young ,exciting player who can play at a few attacking positions on the field and can help us be a more dangerous team.
JOE KING– What is Blanco's and McBride's realtionship on the team like? They spent so long being rivals on the international level, I can't imagine them being best buddies now.
HAMLETT– I think there’s a mutual respect for both players. When Brian came in here last year, it was not an awkward moment, but it’s different when you come into the team in the beginning then when you come in three quarters of the way. You don’t want to just . I don’t think Brian did that. Once they stepped on the field, the sense of respect they had for each other because they’re very good players was evident. It took them a while to get on the same page, and I think you saw that toward the end of the season, but they respect each other.
Having Brian from the get-go this season has been invaluable because of just the way he goes about business. He’s just a professional, from how he prepares himself and steps on the field. Here’s a guy who’s played all over the place but he still gives his all to everything and does all the little things.
FELIX– What do you feel you learned in your first year as a manager? What surprised you the most?
HAMLETT– The patience throughout the whole season. It’s such a long season that you have to have patience and trust within your group. It’s such a long season with a lot of ups and downs and you have to just put all that aside and focus on your group and what you can control. I know about it going into it but when you’re the one in charge and dealing with it on a day-to-day basis it’s a different
The first incident that took place with the Wilman Conde situation, as far as him making that statement, was a challenging one but looking back I think it was handled in the right way. Maybe it made us stronger as a team and Wilman became a guy who put himself out there and still ended up being one of our key guys and making some key plays late in the season. He saw the commitment we had to winning and putting the jersey on.
A.RUIZ– Denis, do you have any regrets when it comes to Tomasc Frankowski. Since he was a relatively big signing by MLS standards, his season was disappointing to say the least.
Outside of the home opener vs NE, he never really shined for the Fire. Do you think theres anything you could have done differently, either tactically or in the locker room?
HAMLETT– I don’t think I have any regrets like that. When you’re building your team in pre-season, you’re looking at the trialists and everyone spoke highly of him and he came in and everything made sense on our part. It all looked good and everything was fine. The season started and he scores two goals in the first game. As we roll, things changed and as a result now you’re playing a different way and he became the outside piece.
We were playing a different way and needed a bigger forward up front, and that was Chad. That’s how that evolved and once we make the trade for Brian McBride where do you fit him in? That’s not to say he was a bad player. He’s a good soccer player and his pedigree speaks for itself, but that’s just the way our season went about. Everyone had a big problem with it because they thought he was a good player and in the games he played with us he helped us, but those are things that happen.
If you looked at the system we were playing, we were playing with one striker, with (Cuauhtemoc Blanco) as the second striker. If you say there’s Tomasz and (Blanco) on the field then you don’t have a threat to get behind other teams. You have to look at how you’re going to play. The same way Chris Rolfe was used more on the right, because that’s the way we’ve played.”
If you play with two strikers then you’re asking Cuauhtemoc to play more in the middle of the field and have more defensive responsibility. If we do that then we become an easy team to play against. You have to make decisions based on the whole group and on getting results. When we played the system we played we became a harder
JEFF– I haven't heard much about newly signed Stefan Dimitrov. What can you say about him and how does he figure into your plans? Thanks.
HAMLETT– He’s a yong player that has a lot of good tools. Like with all young players, you come into the league, and this level, and it takes some time to adjust to the speed. It’s going to take him some time but he’s got it to a point where he understand what it means to be a forward and doing all the little things, it’s not just about scoring goals. It’s just about being a guy who can hold the ball up and get involved defensively and make the little plays. He’s got a great guy in Brian (McBride) to learn the tricks of a forward. He’s very good around the goal and he has great feet. We feel he has a lot of tools that we can work with and eventually, with all the games we have, hopefully he’ll get a chance to showcase his abilities.
STEVE– Since you've been with the Fire from day one you're the best person to answer these:
Most underrated player to ever play for the Fire?
Second best Fire squad in team history (after 1998 of course)?
Who would win a game between the '98 Fire and 2009 Fire, by how much and why?
HAMLETT– A guy like Jesse Marsch was probably someone who never got the props, but he was a solid guy for all those years for a pretty good team. He was underrated. I think a guy like C.J. Brown is on that list too because there were other guys, like Lubos Kubik and Carlos Bocanegra, but he is a guy who has been there from day one. If you look at Chris Armas, he’s a guy who did a lot of dirty work and maybe wasn’t recognized for it as much as some other players like Peter Nowak.
It’s the 2000 team. The 2000 team could even trump the ’98 team if they had won the Cup. We lost to KC, 1-0, then a week later we beat Miami, 2-1, in the Open Cup.
I think the ’98 Fire would win. That’s no disrespect to the team I have right now but that ’98 team, if you take them in their heyday, that was a pretty special group that was put together. I like my team I have now, but I’d love putting them together. What I will say is that the 2009 team’s defense would be able to hold up against that high-octane 98 team. It would be an interesting game because both teams are good defensively and good on the counter.
SEAN– As a young black guy who grew up in this country playing soccer it is definitely an inspiration to see you and other minority coaches getting chances to be successful. What was the road to this point in your career like from a racial standpoint? I am not trying to bring up any divisions, but did you have to deal with any discrimination? Do you enjoy the fact that your appointment didn't make headlines because of the color of your skin?
HAMLETT– I went about my business and didn’t let that become an issue. I’ve learned from working with Bob, he treated us all the same, all the coaching staff were in this together. It was never really a major issue for me coming up.
I feel like I was given some very good opportunities and I feel that I’ve earned everything I’ve gotten. I worked hard and waited for the moment to come. I feel it’s an honor to be the first black coach in the league but I don’t get caught up in that because the game is bigger than that and bigger than all of us. I have been lucky to work with good people through the years, when you look at someone like Bob Bradley, who treated us all the same
BILL– Denis, I know your career was cut short because of an injury. How long did it take you to come to grips with not being able to play anymore and what player currently in MLS would you say has a playing style similar to yours?
One more thing, in your one year in MLS who was the toughest guy to defend?
HAMLETT– It didn’t take me that long. When I had the stroke and I spent three months of going through the whole process, it made me look at the bigger picture. It was a serious injury and I think I ended up making the right decision.
I’m an old school defender so I haven’t quite seen a guy out there in the league right now. The John Doyles and Clei Koiman are all gone now. Now, these guys are better with the ball but I’m not sure they have that bite to put serious fear in forwards like before.
MICHAEL F– Denis, Geno's or Giordano's? (I'm a Giordano's guy myself.)
HAMLETT– Neither. Pete’s Pizza.
JIMMY BOBO– Please be honest. What was your role in the Lider Marmol saga while he was trying to join RBNY and follow Juan Carlos Osorio? Would you do anything differently in hindsight?
HAMLETT– It’s a competitive business. I still felt we did the right thing because this was a guy we discovered and we felt he was a good player. If they wanted him they needed to step up to the plate and make a deal to get him. It goes back to how you build your team. He was a good player but we had Baky (Soumare) and Wilman (Conde), who had unbelievable seasons and never got injured, so he couldn’t see the field. That’s what happened. I wouldn’t have done anything different. The way the rules are set up and the league is set up you have to make sure you’re on top of it and you try to be one step ahead of your opponents.
I did have plans for him for this year but he looked at our team and he could see we had two young center backs and he was going to struggle to get playing time. He just wanted to play after having not played for two years. He had an opportunity in Paraguay so I had no problem with letting him go.
ADAM– Chris Rolfe has earned several caps from the USMNT playing as a forward. However, he often plays in the midfield on the Fire. Is this because the Fire have an abundance of talented forwards but Chris is versatile and should be on the field, or because you feel he is a better player in the midfield than up top? ‘
HAMLETT– You want your best players on the field and you put your players in positions where yo think they can utilize their ability. I don’t think people realize that Chris scored 10 goals last year and scored seven of them from the midfield position. That shows you that he can adapt to any situation that he’s put in.
Look around the world and you find talented players who are asked to play out of position from where they’re normally played, but it’s in the context of what’s best for the team. There’s days I watch Manchester United and you can watch Wayne Rooney play left midfield.
If you ask Chris, he’ll tell you that he just wants to be on the field. He’s shown to me that he’s been able to adapt and he’s doing well at it. We all know he’s good around goal high up the field, but sometimes it’s also a little harder for him because of the physicality of the game and teams feeling they have to do that to get him out of his game. When you take him a little bit away from the goal he has freedom to run out of the midfield. He’s good with the ball and he’s able to make those runs. I think he’s still learning the position but I think when he gets to the point where he fully understands the position he can be a very dangerous player on that side because he has all the qualities to play there.
TCOMPTON– You've been involved with the league since the beginning. It seemed that when the League started out, players like Etcheverry, Valderrama, and Cienfuegos really drove the level of play. As these players grew older, the level of play in the league began to slip. To help counter this, the league decided to bring in Designated Players back into the fold to help elevate the level of play.
Do you believe that the league really needs "foreign experience," such as Blanco, to achieve a higher quality of play on the field?
HAMLETT– I think the league does. These are good players with special abilities. When you go back to the Etcheverrys, the Valderramas, the Nowaks and the Donadonis, these guys were high-level players that helped grow our league and helped develop our younger players. I can tell you that the same way a Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, and C.J. Brown learned from players like Hristo (Stoitchkov) and Lubos (Kubik) and (Peter) Nowak, guys now are learning a lot from Cuauhtemoc. If each team can go out and get that right player who can come in and embrace the league and respect the league and the team, then it’s a good thing. If you don’t have that then it becomes very difficult. We’ve been lucky in Chicago that in all the years we’ve had players like Peter, Lubos, Hristo and Cuahtemoc, guys that enjoy their time in Chicago and enjoy what our organization is all about.
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