Frank Klopas is Chicago soccer.
His teammates from the Fire’s Double-winning inaugural year of 1998 know it better than anyone. “We used to call Frankie ‘the Mayor,’” said Jesse Marsch, back then a young journeyman midfielder with a serious competitive streak. “We’d see the actual Mayor [Daley] in the airport and his whole entourage would come over and make sure they said hello to him [Klopas].
Born in Prosymna in Greece in 1966, Klopas made his mark on the city’s soccer scene long before MLS came to town. He emigrated to Chicago, won a championship with Mather High School, and signed straight up for the Chicago Sting’s final outdoor season before the original NASL folded – and then played several seasons for the Sting’s indoor team (MISL).
When the Fire launched as an expansion team in 1998, it was a no-brainer to bring Klopas – then in his early 30s – back home to help lead the city’s team in the emergent new professional top flight (MLS).
“It was near the end of my career,” said Klopas, who played in Greece with AEK and in the U.S. National Team in the lean years of American professional soccer between the old NASL folding (1984) and MLS emerging in 1996. “I was so grateful for the chance to go back and finish my career where it all started.
“It was so special to be able to play my last few years in front of my family and in my hometown – and also to have soccer back in the city.” he said about his return after two years with the Kansas City Wiz (now Sporting Kansas City).
Made for the Big Moments
Klopas was built for the big occasions. He was an eager striker with a near-liquid stride and a keen eye for goal before injuries took their toll. His Chicago homecoming, in what were his autumn years, could have ended as a sentimental swansong – a simple and empty gesture. Instead, he etched his name again into the lore of the city’s soccer by scoring the golden goal, deep in extra-time against the Columbus Crew, that saw the Fire finish that first season with a rare League and Cup Double.
In addition to the unforgettable winner at Soldier Field, he also scored the first goal of that 1998 Cup run. It came at a very different venue in the city, Forest View Park in Arlington Heights, and against the semi-pro Chicago Stingers. “Those games are tough. Not easy at all. Those guys [the Stingers] were ready to go and they were hungry,” Klopas remembered of the game the Fire won 3-1 after trailing in the 85th minute and facing early elimination.
“It came down to little details,” he said of the comeback that began with him sneaking in at the near post and nabbing the equalizer. “In the end it’s down to us making a couple plays. And the rest is history.”
Klopas is quick to deflect attention away from himself and point out the true secret behind that famous 1998 team. “Some of our training sessions were harder than the games,” he said of the spirit a then-young Bob Bradley fostered in a squad that had a core of young Americans like Marsch and Josh Wolff – and a raft of eastern-europeans led by captain Piotr Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Jerzy Podbrozny.
“Guys in that team hated to lose and Bob [Bradley] had made sure everyone bought into what we were doing and that the balance was right,” said Klopas, now 56, and with a pair of wins (one in the Cup and one in the league – and both against St Louis City) to start his stint as Fire head coach.
Open Cup Roots
Klopas’ connection to the Open Cup is deep and he understands its essence better than most. Coming up through an era when improvisation was required to make a living in the game – before the stability of MLS – he was more than happy to grind away on hot summer days in a congested league/Cup schedule.
He did his part in the rest of the games that led the way to the club’s first Open Cup title. A win over the San Jose Clash (now the Earthquakes) at the Cotton Bowl in near-100 degree temperatures was followed by another against the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) on a baseball field just outside of New Orleans.
Hurricane Bonnie meant the originally scheduled Final couldn’t be played at Hampton Roads in Virginia. Both the Columbus Crew and the Fire’s players waited it out and hoped for the best. “I remember looking out of my hotel window and seeing everything turn black,” Klopas said with a laugh. “We hopped on the bus and got out of town right in the nick of time.”
The Final was rescheduled and pushed back to a week after the MLS Cup Final in October. And it turned into a home game at Soldier Field for the recently-crowned MLS champion Fire.
“I had a great feeling waking up that morning,” said Klopas of that day – five days after the Fire beat D.C. United to win the club’s first MLS Cup at the Rose Bowl. “It was a chance to come back to Chicago after winning MLS Cup and we had a standing ovation when the game started. I really had that feeling in my gut that I was going to score and help the team lift that Cup.”
He entered the game, one that drew a crowd of just under 20,000 to break an Open Cup Final attendance record that had stood since 1929, in the first minute of extra-time. And still in the golden-goal (sudden death) era, the magic moment was right there for the taking. A [Jerzy] Podbrozny corner-kick came in and flicked off a teammate’s head in the 108th minute.
“Thank God my first touch was good,” Klopas chuckled about the moment before he buried the winner with his second touch and brought the game to a sudden halt. “I remember hopping over the advertising boards and being surprised that the screws in my knees held together.”
The Perfect Finish
The broadcast call of the goal, to this day, still gives goosebumps to any diehard Chicago soccer fan. The Fire Do the Double became part of the legend of those hugely successful early years. It was the perfect finish to an historic season and a perfect homecoming for the city’s favorite soccer son.The Fire would go on to win three more Open Cups in the space of the next eight years.
It was fitting then that Klopas’ return to the Fire as head coach – following the departure of Ezra Hendrickson – should come on the eve of a 2023 Open Cup game (in the Round of 32). And he wasn’t alone as a former Cup hero in the stadium. Jesse Marsch, Chris Armas and Logan Pause were all in attendance as honored guests when the Fire edged St Louis City 2-1 in Bridgeview, Illinois.
“A lot of the big moments start from small details,” said Klopas, who was joined on the bench by his assistants and former Fire Open Cup winners Zach Thornton and CJ Brown. “Little things have to occur.”
“The Open Cup is the oldest tournament in this country and its history is alive because of moments like that,” said Klopas, back fighting for silverware for his adoptive city and facing a Round of 16 tie on the road against his old teammate Josh Wolff's Austin FC. “Maybe people only see the big moments and the trophy going up, but there are little moments – hard ones – along the way.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.