The Montreal Impact hope that Frank Klopas has the blend of European style and American know-how they’ve been seeking.
The club that dominated the first half of the Major League Soccer season only to come crashing down at the end got its third head coach in as many seasons with the hiring on Wednesday of the Greek-American Klopas.
The move made it official that the fiery Marco Schallibaum, whose future was in limbo since the end of the season, would not return.
“I don’t know what’s happened in the past, but my philosophy is I always think long term,” said Klopas, who signed a three-year contract as head coach and director of player personnel. “I believe in myself, that I can do a good job.
“You go into a coaching situation, you know it’s based on results. But this is an opportunity I couldn’t give up.”
The Impact had an American rookie head coach in Jesse Marsch in its inaugural MLS campaign in 2012, then went for one with no MLS experience in former Switzerland international fullback Schallibaum.
Now the club has a native European with extensive experience in North American soccer.
“It gets you thinking it’s the best of both worlds,” said sporting director Nick De Santis.
The 47-year-old Klopas, a native of Prosymna, Greece, is a former U.S. international striker who had a 39-29-23 record in three seasons in Chicago.
While working as the Fire’s technical director, he moved in as coach of a 1-4-6 team partway through the 2011 campaign and got them to a 9-9-14 record. The following season, the Fire went 17-11-6 and made the playoffs.
However, in 2013 the Fire were 14-13-7 — the same record as Montreal. But the Impact got the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot over the Fire due to a better goal differential.
While Chicago replaced Klopas with Canadian coach Frank Yallop at the end of the season, Montreal chose to delay a decision on Schallibaum’s future for several weeks. The club insisted the former Switzerland fullback’s status was undecided even as reports swirled of a search for a new coach.
The decision was finally made “a couple of days ago,” said De Santis.
“When a team goes through a difficult phase, but you see a team that’s unable to get out of it, it becomes quite difficult,” he added. “In the end, we met our goals, which is positive, but we can’t hide that it was a team that struggled.
“Whether it was physical or mental or the dressing room wasn’t there any more, that has to be evaluated. We strongly believed that with our new structure being put in place, with the additions we wanted to add to help us keep growing, we needed to go in a different direction. In the end, it cost Marco his job.”
He had high praise for Klopas’ work in Chicago. The Fire were just the opposite of Montreal, starting the season 2-7-1 due partly to injuries and then having one of the league’s best records in the second half.
“They were 17 points behind us and they were able to come within a point of making the playoffs,” said De Santis. “We have to ask, when we’re in a difficult time, can we get out of it? Do we have the right people to keep the group together. Frank showed he can do that in the last two years.”
Klopas said he likes Montreal and has visited friends in the city often over the years. He even remembers the big crowds that once turned out for the Montreal Manic of the old NASL.
He promised to try to learn French, as Marsch did in his year with the Impact. Schallibaum spoke several languages.
De Santis said having French-speaking personnel is important for the club, but that it is hard to find it in a coach who has MLS experience.
Klopas was introduced to the team’s supporters at a meeting Wednesday night.
“Excited at the opportunity to play for Klopas and get the 2014 campaign underway! Welcome to the #IMFC famille,” Impact defender Jeb Brovsky posted on his Twitter account.
Bilingual Montreal native Mauro Biello was an option, but the Impact opted to keep him as assistant coach. The second assistant, Frenchman Philippe Eullaffroy, will be back only as director of the Impact Academy.
“Mauro will continue to grow,” said De Santis. “He can become a great coach and one day, it will be Mauro’s time to become a great coach here in Montreal. Right now, we’d added someone with a lot of credibility and experience who will help us grow as a team.”
Schallibaum had the team in first place in July, only to plummet sharply in the second half. The Impact was routed by Houston in its first MLS playoff game, finishing the match with nine men after Andres Romero and star forward Marco Di Vaio were sent off.
The team also won the Voyageurs Cup by taking the Amway Canadian Championship, although it was then ousted in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Schallibaum was suspended four times for a total of five games for sideline blowups, although he had his temper under control by the end of the season.
Few European coaches have found success in MLS.
“I don’t think a European coach is (necessarily) going to struggle, but a European coach has to do a lot of homework in terms of understanding the league and the players you play against,” said De Santis.
“This is not a easy league to play in. In Europe, you think of three or four top teams and the other ones are in a mix where there are some easy games. In MLS, I can’t even imagine one easy game we’ve played in.”
Klopas takes over a team that will be missing 20-goal scorer Di Vaio and Romero to suspensions for the first three games — March 8 in Dallas, March 15 at Houston and March 22 at home against Seattle. The Fire will visit Olympic Stadium on April 12.
Klopas played nine seasons in Greece, winning four championships with Athens club AEK, before joining the Kansas City Wizards for the inaugural MLS campaign in 1996. He moved to Chicago in 1998 and the Fire won both the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in the club’s first season.
He retired as a player after the 1999 season and worked as a television commentator until he was hired as the Fire’s technical director in 2008.
Klopas said he won’t change the team’s style of play, but it will need personnel moves to strengthen the defence after the retirement of Alessandro Nesta and to find some help for Di Vaio.
He also hopes to bolster the wide positions in the midfield and to get Di Vaio some help up front.
“This group has been put together to play a certain way,” said Klopas. “It’s been a good build-up team through possession, that likes to keep the ball on the ground.
“I believe in the same philosophy, the same type of soccer.”
Goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha and fitness coach Paolo Pacione will also stay on.
Director of soccer operations Matt Jordan was promoted to technical director, reporting to De Santis.
The Impact open camp on Jan. 27 in Montreal before heading to Florida on Feb. 14 to defend its Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic title.