For nearly four months, the Chicago Fire have sputtered and streaked, oscillating between “unbeatable” and “shambolic”. It is now nearly July and a slow start and inconsistent performances have left them with the worst record in Major League Soccer. This is familiar territory for Fire fans, who have seen their club perform variations of this theme year after year. In recent years, ownership has addressed the problem of poor starts by firing head coaches mid-season, so it’s no surprise that some Fire supporters are already asking for Frank Yallop to hit the road.
Chicago had just two head coaches, Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan, for their first nine and a half years of existence (1998-2007). In the eight years since 2007, the team has employed five different head coaches – six if you count Sarachan, who began that year in charge. Juan Carlos Osorio, Denis Hamlett, Carlos de los Cobos, Frank Klopas, and Frank Yallop have all served the club with no trophies to show for their efforts.
This is a three part series which attempts to measure Frank Yallop against his predecessors. In the first installment, Fire coaches were compared by their statistical performance- wins, losses, and goal differential. In the second installment, each Fire coach’s performance in knockout competitions was evaluated. In this final article, we play the Blame Game, and ask whether the worst is yet to come for Fire fans.
Chicago Fire Coach Comparison Part 3: The Blame Game
After comparing Frank Yallop to the rest of the Fire’s seven coaches, it doesn’t look good. He has a 26% win rate, did not make the playoffs last year, and increasingly seems lost during press conferences and his in-game tactics. No matter how you compare his performance to other Fire coaches, he is near the bottom of the list. While watching a recent game with family, one relative who does not watch soccer remarked about Yallop “he looks like he wants to be anywhere but there, like he wants to shrink into a corner”.
How much blame falls on Frank Yallop?
When Yallop was hired, he was named “Head Coach and Director of Soccer”. He and Brian Bliss have made all the on field personnel decisions since his hiring. Surely Yallop can be blamed for the terrible signings of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, which caused the back line to leak goals last year. But they have also brought in David Accam, Matt Polster, Joevin Jones, and Shaun Maloney – possibly the most promising group of signings the Fire has seen since the days of Blanco, Nyarko, and Pappa. Now it is possible that Bliss has had more of a hand in the scouting than Yallop, but even still, the quality of players coming into Bridgeview is higher than it was in the days of Klopas and de los Cobos.
The problem is on the field, not in the scouting. Recently, Yallop has been criticized for playing Harry Shipp on the wing instead of centrally, even when Maloney is not playing. The recent home loss to D.C. left many pundits scratching their heads, with Michael Stephens left on the bench and a sub unused as the Fire pushed for a late equalizer. Injuries, international call-ups, and bizarre scheduling have played a role as well, but without a doubt, much of the blame for this season falls on Yallop.
How much blame falls on players? Does the Fire have a “losing culture”?
This is another part of the blame game, and it’s one that is never popular with anybody. Within any organization, a unique culture eventually sets in. Every workplace is a different experience, every locker room has a different vibe, and every team is built from different relationships. There have been fears among fans in recent years that the Fire simply don’t have a winners’ mindset anymore. Occasionally, players will say something which appears to support this hypothesis.
When Bakary Soumare was released by the Fire this year, he said “I saw the decline from (2007) to today when it comes to the staff, the squad, the club itself, the stadium, all the way to the grass.” When Mike Magee was signed in 2013, he was immediately labeled the “emotional” leader of the team, and after a tie against Portland told the media he was “looking for something, even myself…showing emotion and trying to light a fire under whoever was looking”. In the end, his efforts fell short as the Fire missed the playoffs yet again. This year, the team has looked flat during games, and after several years of late mental lapses, under several coaches, one can’t help but wonder if there is something truly ingrained in the club at this point. Players like Chris Rolfe, Justin Mapp, Chad Barrett, Dan Gargan, and Baggio Husidic have all revitalized their careers by leaving the Fire. How many careers can Chicago take credit for revitalizing?
In recent weeks, Yallop has sounded like a man trying to avoid responsibility, saying things like “we’ve been unlucky” and “I thought we played well” after each loss. Frank Klopas and Carlos de los Cobos were both legendary for shifting blame during press conferences, and de los Cobos was memorable for his constant reminders that “this is the soccer.” Where does this attitude come from, if it repeats itself in coach after coach?
Which brings us to the next question:
How much blame falls on ownership?
Long time Fire fans have probably noticed by now something that’s gone unmentioned up to this point. In 2007, the same year Sarachan was let go, Anschutz Entertainment Group sold the Chicago Fire to Andell Holdings for between $33 and $35 million. (The Fire are currently valued at $102 million by Forbes) MLS wanted a one-owner, one-team formula, and AEG owned multiple teams at the time. Andell’s CEO, Andrew Hauptman, has run Chicago Fire SC ever since. His purchase correlates directly to the beginning of the coaching carousel that has become the new normal in Bridgeview.
There is a growing #HauptmanOut movement among Fire fans. One has only to glance at the #cf97 hashtag on Twitter to see it. Many supporters have complained that the ownership group struggles with transparency, and missteps like the infamous “editorial” a few years back have perhaps permanently damaged the relationship between fans and ownership.
Coaches’ decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Players and coaches are signed; front office and technical staff are hired, all with the approval of the owner. Fire fans may be wondering which scenario is more scary- do they have an owner who doesn’t care about the on-field product, or do they have an owner who wants badly to win but fails to put the proper pieces in place? Remember, Andell Holdings owned the team during the playoff runs in 2008 and 2009, in addition to the years since then.
As much as the buck does appear to stop at Yallop for now, there has been one constant factor in Bridgeview since the team started losing, and it is the ownership. Some amount of blame must fall on Andrew Hauptman, no matter how much he may want to win. This team has been bad for too long.
So where does this leave us? Yallop has gotten poor results so far, but there are not very many options left for the Fire. He appears to be the only choice going forward. What’s more, he and Brian Bliss have already begun shaping the roster dramatically. There are only five players left on the team that were under contract when he took over. One thing that nearly everyone can agree on is that this roster is too talented to have a losing record. Harry Shipp and Maloney are on multi-year contracts. In a weak Eastern Conference, it is still possible for Chicago to make the playoffs, and as long as they are in contention for even the sixth spot, Yallop will probably have his job. This year’s mess is his to clean up. The larger mess is something that may take years to understand. For now, at least, this is the soccer.
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