CHESTER, Pa. – Philadelphia Union sporting director Diego Gutiérrez wasn’t surprised when Frank Klopas guided the Chicago Fire to an 8-5-10 record after taking over as head coach of the floundering club in the middle of last season.
That’s because Gutiérrez remembers Klopas as an inspiring leader, even back when the two were teammates on the Kansas City Wizards and Fire back in the late 1990s. Together, Gutiérrez, Klopas and Union manager Peter Nowak helped guide Chicago to the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup in their expansion season of 1998.
“His role, whether he was on the field or not, was talking to younger players,” Gutierrez told MLSsoccer.com. “I was one of them. … He was trying to teach us what it was like to become a winner. It’s more than just winning games; it’s a lifestyle.”
On Saturday, Gutiérrez and Nowak return to Chicago with their Union team to take on the Klopas-led Fire in an Eastern Conference battle (8:30 pm ET; The Comcast Network).
Knowing how much Klopas cares about Chicago, Gutierrez expects stiff competition in his return to his former hometown.
“Frank has been through a lot with the club – as a player, an assistant coach, technical director and now as a head coach,” Gutiérrez said. “He brings a lot of passion and is an icon for the soccer community in that city. He really loves the team and really loves the community and is a part of Chicago history.
“We know his team will be prepared as it always is. But our boys are going to be prepared as well.”
Nowak has known Klopas for a while and agrees that he’s the perfect man to coach the Fire, in part because of his past experience with the club as a player, assistant and technical director.
Klopas, who served on an interim basis last season, was named the Fire’s permanent head coach before the season began.
“He was always the kid of Chicago,” Nowak said. “At the end of [last] season, they found a good way to work together, they found a good formula to play the games and they were successful.”
Gutiérrez is excited to return to Chicago not only to see Klopas but also the community where he played from 1998-2001 and then again from 2006-08. The sporting director did not make the trip for the Union’s road matchup with the Fire last August because he was in Costa Rica scouting Josué Martínez, who Philly signed in the offseason.
“It will be special because the club has gone through a lot of changes but the one thing that doesn’t change is the fans and the passion they have for the team,” Gutiérrez said. “There are a lot of new faces over there but the passion the fans have is still the same.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.