MLS- Chicago Fire

Fire's latest coaching departure a bad sign for Chicago's future


What do you get when you take an overbearing and meddling owner and a stubborn head coach? You get a marriage that was never going to work.

Such is the case in Chicago, where the Fire is looking for its third coach in three years after parting ways with head coach Denis Hamlett, who never did see eye-to-eye with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman, who has taken a hands-on approach to running the Fire that led to a strained relationship with Hamlett.

Where did it all go wrong? It went wrong when Hamlett made the assumption that winning was enough, that doing his job and guiding the Fire to a pair of playoff victories was evidence enough that he was growing into his job in his second year as head coach. Instead of proving his worth, Hamlett became the first head coach in MLS history to not be retained after reaching conference finals in each of his first two seasons in charge.

You will hear Fire officials say that it was a matter of wanting a new direction, and you'll hear rumblings that a lack of trophies did in Hamlett, but you won't hear that from the men who ultimately dumped Hamlett, Hauptman and sporting director Javier Leon. You will instead hear it from technical director Frank Klopas, who has been tasked with doing the dirty work for the Fire's leadership, even though Hauptman and Leon were the men who pulled the trigger.

They aren't likely to face the music and address the decision they made. They will simply continue to play the background while they look for a head coach who will play their game, who will let them be involved, who will allow Hauptman to operate as sort of a younger, soccer version of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

For those of you in the soccer world who don't know who Al Davis is, he's the 80-year-old owner whose need to have his hands in the running of the team he owns has helped turn the Raiders into one of the laughing stocks of the NFL. His need to be in control has led the team to hire inexperienced coaches who would let Davis meddle and simply be thankful for having a job as a head coach.

Perhaps that is what Fire leadership thought would happen with Hamlett, a long-time assistant coach who had yearned for a head coaching job for years. Hamlett didn't play along though. Hamlett had no interest in humoring an overbearing owner so instead of forging a relationship with Hauptman, Hamlett tried keeping him at arm's length. That approach doomed Hamlett to a brief tenure in charge of the Fire, so when Chicago struggled through injuries and inconsistent form at home, the stage was set for the Fire to unload Hamlett after just two seasons.

If control is what Fire officials are ultimately looking for, we will see for ourselves when they make their next coaching hire. Former Fire legend Chris Armas is already being mentioned as a leading candidate despite having exactly one year of coaching experience on the pro level. If he is hired, or if the Fire turn to a coach with no head coaching experience, it will mark their second straight hiring of someone who hasn't been a head coach before, a trend that would lend at least some credence to Hauptman's comparisons to Al Davis.

It isn't as if coaches with little to no experience haven't succeeded in MLS before. Peter Nowak won an MLS Cup title in his first year as a coach (with D.C. United) while Jason Kreis just became the youngest head coach to ever win an MLS Cup title just 30 months after retiring as a player and jumping right into coaching. What must be made clear about those two success stories is that in both instances, the novice coaches were supported by strong front office leadership and understanding ownership that let their soccer people make the soccer decisions. That doesn't appear to be the environment that would await the Fire's next head coach.

Does Hamlett bear his share of blame in all this? He isn't blameless in the sense that he could have done more to establish a relationship with Hauptman, but Hamlett still did his job well and still navigated the Fire through injuries and player unhappiness with their contracts, all while managing a locker room with as many strong egos as any team in the league. The Fire remained a hard team to figure out during its time under Hamlett. Chicago was absolutely dominant on the road, easily boasting the best road record in a league where winning on the road just isn't common, but the Fire was painfully mediocre at home, never really establishing the home-field advantage you might expect at Toyota Park.

In the end, Hamlett's tenure with the Fire was done in by the slimmest of margins, by penalty kick losses in the SuperLiga Final and MLS Eastern Conference Final. A trophy, or even a berth in the MLS Cup Final, might have been enough to buy him another year, but the truth is it might have simply delayed the inevitable. Fire ownership and Hamlett were never going to really see eye-to-eye, were never going to have that relationship needed to produce a championship team. The question that lingers now is whether the Fire will ever find that again with its current ownership.

  • Seviybreccos

    What other rumors are flying around?

    How would it have been classy to keep Hamlett on after he beat up Soumare? I think he should have been fired right after that. That would have been the classy move.


  • anovato

    Hauptman has been reaching out to the Fire fans, most notably Section 8. Whether or not he takes into consideration the things that were said will be seen in time, but until then he is making more of an effort to understand the fans than any owner I’ve known of.

    DH made the biggest mistake he could ever make, he hurt a player physically. Trust was gone from that point on.

    He alienated players, he destroyed team chemistry, he drove the team into the ground. He won games, but never the games that really mattered. At a time when the team needed his coaching the most, he was absent. It was simply inexcusable to allow a defender with no career goals to take a final PK for the conference championships.


  • dabull

    Ives, remember a Polish striker named Frankowski? Wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t. He never really played b/c he and Denis couldn’t get along.

    Denis and Klopas (or Hauptman as you are insinuating) never really seemed to see eye to eye on player aquisitions. I believe that fact alone is enough cause to make a change.


  • John Sweeny

    Frankowski an egomaniac? Come on Ives, do some research, the guy is as low key as they come. The way he should have handled Frankowski was to play him and let him succeed or fail on the field. Hamlett screwed him, and as a result he screwed any chance to win in 2008.


  • dabull

    Unfortunately Ives is giving a wrong impressions of the Fire ownership. It is not a train wreck. Not even close. Since when is an owner not allowed to bring in people with a similar philosophy and mind set? Since when is wanting to win actual hardware wrong? That’s not meddling . . . that being an owner!

    And when and how has the team asked fans to write on these boards? I haven’t gotten anything.

    (SBI-Unfortunately (for you), I’m not giving YOUR impression of Fire ownership. I will trust in what I have written and will stand by it and the sources that helped me shape this view. You can disagree, but telling me I’m wrong because I don’t see things your way is a stretch.)


  • Juan Carlos

    Ives, you are assuming that the Fire are going to hire an inexperienced coach or an MLS re-tread. When in relaity they are porbably going to upgrade with a high end foreign coach.

    (SBI-You mean they probably SHOULD upgrade with a high-end foreign coach. That’s what they should do(not that foreign coaches have done well in MLS). Let’s see if that is what they actually do.)


  • 57Tele

    I grew up playing against Hamlet in the DC area. I still have the holes in my shins to show for it. Being a DC native (after moving to US from Costa Rica), he may end up on the DC staff even if not selected as head coach. I don’t follow MLS enough to have an opinion as to what kind of job he did, but it was interesting reading the different opinions.


  • Jeanne

    Great article. I live in the DC area, and we have another great example of the danger of a meddling ownership – Dan Synder and the Wash Redskins. As a Revs fan, I’d love to see the Fire self destruct. However, I do think Hamlett didn’t deserve to be fired.

    (SBI-In retrospect, Dan Snyder was a MUCH better analogy than Al Davis. Perhaps it skipped my mind since I’m a Redskins fan and have tried blocking out all things Redskins from my mind. Seriously though, the Al Davis thing was meant to specifically refer to a meddling owner’s move to hire young coaches for the purpose of controlling a team.)


  • Fireman451

    Maybe you should write an article about how Hamlett is the best choice for RBNY. This time around however, your club wouldn’t have any of the drama surrounding the last Fire coach Red Bulls hired.

    I see it as a logical step since you think Denis is a quality MLS coach that’s been wronged; RBNY is looking for a good man after all.

    With any luck, Denis would do as well as JCO did.


  • MikeR

    I guess the thing is, Ives, that we can’t evaluate your sources because we don’t know who they are. Dennis Hamlet? His assistants? Fire players? Which ones? I’m not a big fan of anonymous sources, but here, you’ve provided even less: no quotes, no descriptions of who you’ve talked to (i.e., Fire players, etc.) After the Osorio/Conde situation, it seems possible you chat with Conde and that shapes your opinions. Maybe it’s not true, but how would I know?

    If you had some direct quotes from guys like Rolfe, McBride, Segares, C.J. Brown, etc., I’d be more inclined to accept what you say. As it is, it just sounds like you’ve got a problem with the Fire ownership arising from the Osorio situation.

    You may be completely correct in what you write. We just have no way of knowing. Combine that with the fact that most Fire fans have been less than impressed with Hamlet, and you can understand why we’re unimpressed with this post. How about some more info on sources that would allow us to evaluate this? How about some of your sources manning up and putting themselves on the record?


  • Juan Carlos Osorio, Windy City Futbol Legend

    Chicago needs someone who is well dressed, keeps copious notes and plays a 4-5-1 formation. Hmmmm…am I being too coy?


  • Doug

    You have got to be kiding ! Columbus had more injuries than the Fire and won the Shield, Chivas had more injuries and Preki got them to over acheive.

    The Fire was healthy for the first half of the season and managed to have to settle for ties in games they dominated. Hamlett could not plan to score on set pieces or defend them and that tells right there that he did not have the brains to be a head coach. How he played Rolfe and Blanco out of position all year played big parts in those 2 guys leaving. All summer hr shove Peter Lowry down our throat and the minute we fond out he was a good player we never saw him again.

    Ives , this all leads me to ask to if Hamlett is your long lost brother.


  • The travelling man

    Interesting, the Jersey guy would like to seem that he knows more about our owners than the people part of this club. Micromanaging is hardly Andrew’s style. More along the lines of I’ll buy it, screw with a working formula and then show up once a year to see how things are going.


  • Chris in Belfast

    Do you understand, though, that Ives can’t name names when it comes to sources, or they’ll very quickly cease to be sources?


  • Chris in Belfast

    There’s something to be said about Denis being able to actually form the team he wants as players move on. His formation choices, and thus his squad choices were severely restricted by his personnel. He didn’t have much choice but to play Blanco and McBride when they’re healthy, and that effects the way he had to construct the team and the kind of game he has to play.

    Maybe with a few people gone he’d be able to get different people in and actually run a system he wants. Oh well, we’ll never know now.


  • Chris in Belfast

    While I agree that Rolfe is better in the middle playing as a marauding striker, I think that playing him out wide made him a MUCH better player as regards his feel for the game and how to work with his teammates.


  • dabull

    Of course. Its a definite sign of Hauptman meddling in team affairs. He should definitely stay out of things like this. Who in their right mind would want experienced, decorated players such as these two on their team? Crazy Hauptman, is he ever gonna learn?. ‘Just win baby!’


  • DDT5583

    yes, I understand that, but you still have to take all such things with a grain of salt. This time, we didn’t even get a “sources close to…” or a “a person involved in…”


  • paul

    Talent is good but 2 Conference finals and a La Liga final is not bad, about what would be expected. Short of 2 dice toss shoot outs, Hamlett could have one 2 finals. This is an idiotic decision and will cost the Fire, especially if the new coach is someone like Armas. Now Marsch I could go for.


  • C-note

    Ives – clearly this is a hot issue. I agree that DH had to cope with injuries and had strong road records. Your history speaks for itself on research and sources.
    My specific questions are:
    In the Eastern Conference final 08 how did DH make his sub calls – why did he wait to put Pappa in? Pappa had a shot on goal within about a minute of entering the match. Isay more time for Pappa might have made the difference in that game. ( More Pappa and less Mapp that year and that conf. Final might have been in Chgo.)

    What was the benefit of playing Rolfe at mid, instead of Fwd? At some points in games Blanco would be way in front of BMB on the field… So then couldn’t CR have also had some time in that Forward spot?

    What was DH doing and what was Baky doing to either build tension or just explode? How did that go wrong?

    How much was Conde for JCO or how much was Conde anti DH?
    Conde made his public apology, was his T.O. Or Randy Moss like behavior rooted in not believing in DH?

    If Klopas had been coach instead of DH would the Fire have a championship or two now?


  • c@c.com

    He was playing after the collision for a while. He’d have been a far better option than Brandon Prideaux.


  • c@c.com

    “How many of you have posted on here after being asked to do so by the Fire?”

    WTF are you talking about?


  • c@c.com

    Here are the Hamlett rules:

    1) CBs must not cross midfield.

    2) Holding mids must not approach within 35 yards of the opposite goal.

    3) Blanco must play as our loan striker.

    4) Play long balls to McBride as if he is the type of player who is good at that.

    5) Don’t use attacking players to take PKs, use defenders.

    6) Never show up for “Coach’s Corner” events with season ticket holders.

    7) Attack your teams All star defender at half time.

    8) Always play Rolfe at RM even though he’s really bad at that position.

    9) Throw ins must be done AYSO style (thrown up the line as far as possible).

    10) Corner kicks are a time to try something “wacky” like passing the ball 45 yards back to a defender!! LOL fun!

    11) The keeper must always kick the ball down field, never roll it out.

    12) Boring soccer is good soccer.

    13) USOC is not worth playing.


  • Toby

    While that may be true, it didn’t help Rolfe with the USMNT nor did it help the Fire by limiting his scoring opportunities inside the box. I suppose you could do that with almost any player by making a midfielder like Banner into a defender but then Banner got burnt badly in NE and almost cost us the first round of the playoffs. I really don’t fault Banner for that, though, because he was out of position (perhaps by necessity but he was still out of his natural position as was Rolfe).


  • khan

    I’m of the view that I’m saddened at Hamlett’s departure from the FIRE. After all, he was among the first hires by Peter Wilt for the coaching staff.

    However, Denis simply didn’t do a good job in Chicago with the talent that was assembled. I won’t re-visit much of what others have posted here, but denis has made his share of mistakes in his first head coaching opportunity. While I wish Denis well in the future, he HAD to go.


  • Fireman451

    Brilliant reply. I’m not sure how Deadbull gets any karma out of this since your weak ass club has nothing to do with this coaching change . . . . unless of course you want to hire another ex-Fire coach (hence the logical karma comment nimrod). Since it worked out so well for you last time, feel free to sign Denis.

    Congrats on Erik Soler.


  • Jeremy FIRE

    This article is ridiculous. Ives, come on. I like the site usually but Hauptman is far from an overbearing owner. And the entire premise for this leaves out many, many key points about his short coaching career.


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