Promise fades to changes for Chicago, Vancouver
The 2011 season started off with so much promise for both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire, two teams who came into the season with question marks and coaches who seemed like prime candidates to be replaced if things didn't go well.
After an encouraging March that saw the teams go 2-1-1, Vancouver and Chicago went on horrid runs, combining for a 0-9-11 record, with few signs that things were going to turn around for either club.
So it really shouldn't have come as a surprise that both Teitur Thordarson and Carlos de los Cobos would be the first two coaches fired, and both before the month of June began. Both men were fired on Monday.
While the results may have been similar for both men, the circumstances that led them to where they wound up were considerably different, and while one of the firings probably happened much later than it should have, the other feels like it came too soon.
Take de los Cobos, who thoroughly disappointed last year in his first season in charge, a season that many felt should have led to his removal, but who was inexplicably given a second year in charge. To his credit, de los Cobos acknowledged that MLS was tougher than he expected, and he promised to change.
Instead of adapt, de los Cobos started the year with the crazy idea that a 3-5-2 could work in MLS. He scrapped that notion quickly enough, but the results still didn't come. The Fire blew leads, continued the worrying trend of losing at home, and gave fans little to feel good about aside from Diego Chaves' contributions as the lone reliable goal scorer.
Don't be fooled into buying any of the "de los Cobos couldn't adapt his style to the physical nature of MLS" nonsense. A good head coach adapts and finds a system that gets the most out of his players, and you never got the sense de los Cobos did that. In fact, you can find far more players who have seen their form and stature diminish under de los Cobos than have thrived and clearly improved.
What needs to be acknowledged is that the Fire has rattled off a series of questionable moves involving the head coach's position. First, Chicago chose not to re-sign Denis Hamlett as head coach despite a strong two seasons in charge. Then the Fire turned to de los Cobos despite no experience in MLS, largely on the strength of his modest success with the El Salvador national team. Even after seeing de los Cobos fall flat in his first year, the Fire gave him a second year rather than cutting its losses and starting anew.
Now the Fire turns to Frank Klopas, a former Fire player and a beloved figure in Chicago, but also someone without head coaching experience to speak of (aside from his stint as an indoor soccer head coach). There have been men who have succeeded in MLS despite a lack of experience, such as Peter Nowak and Jason Kreis, but it remains unclear if Fire leadership sees Klopas as a long-term solution or just a caretaker until a permanent solution can be chosen.
Either way, the Fire will be hard-pressed to salvage the season and look like a good bet to miss the playoffs for the second straight year. That's something that has never happened before in team history, something that could lead to more firings in Chicago before the end of the year.
The Whitecaps' chances of making the MLS playoffs for a first time seem pretty remote now even if new head coach Tom Soehn can help Vancouver earn results after two months of coming close but falling short of winning each time. The Whitecaps may have no wins since the season opener, but they've been competitive in most games and have played attractive soccer in stretches.
Which leads us to wonder: What was the leading motivation for firing Thordarson so quickly? Whitecaps leadership talked about long-term goals before the season and even drafted long-term projects with their two first-round MLS Draft picks. But somehow, in just 10 weeks, Thordarson went from being part of those long-term plans to being expendable.
It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise considering the staff Vancouver hired to work with Thordarson. Tom Soehn was hired as Director of Soccer Operations by the Whitecaps in January of 2010, just two months after leaving D.C. United after three years as head coach. He was always seen as the easy alternative if Thordarson struggled in MLS. The Whitecaps added another former head coach in Denis Hamlett to the coaching staff as an assistant, giving Vancouver two men with MLS head coaching experience on the payroll, in position to replace a head coach working on a one-year contract.
You have to wonder whether Portland's early success had anything to do with the move. The Timbers are off to a great start and look every bit like a playoff team, which only serves to magnify Vancouver's struggles. Did the fact that the Timbers have played attractive soccer - and even integrated young players into that success - suddenly leave Whitecaps owners less confident about their own project's success?
In steps Soehn, who returns to the sidelines for the first time since his three-year stint as D.C. United head coach. Soehn inherits a Whitecaps team that has talent but been plagued by injuries. If the Whitecaps defense can get healthy, and if, as expected, Soehn installs Joe Cannon as the starting goalkeeper, Vancouver just might start generating the wins that were so hard to come by under Thordarson.
Only a quick turnaround under Soehn will take away the feeling that Thordarson was let go too soon, and with the Whitecaps getting healthier as a group, Soehn should have a good chance to help Vancouver's results improve. Even if there continue to be struggles in Vancouver, Soehn stands a good chance of being given more than just the rest of this season to establish a foundation for the Whitecaps' future.
Klopas will be under much more pressure than Soehn because, after more than three years as the Fire's technical director, his future with the club will hinge on winning with the team he played a large role in building. Fire owner Andrew Hauptman can't be happy with the growing number of empty seats at Toyota Park (or the fact the Fire face a second season without the playoffs) and could be ready to clean house completely if Klopas can't give fans and Fire ownership signs that the club is heading in a good direction.
Ultimately, two teams that grew desperate for wins fired coaches who failed to deliver. One firing came later than it should have, while the other feels like it came sooner than needed. But none of that will matter if the new men in charge can start winning and giving hope to two clubs in need of some.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.