Nick Sabetti: Impact seeking stability following yet another offseason of turmoil

Frank Klopas on Wednesday became the Montreal Impact's sixth coach in five years, and the club is hoping he can stick around longer than his predecessors.
In the lead-up to the Montreal Impact’s first-ever playoff game against the Houston Dynamo in October, Marco Schallibaum was a man who had grown completely fed up — fed up with the long traveling, inconvenient scheduling, controversial refereeing and just about everything else.

The energy and enthusiasm that was there at the beginning of the season was no longer. In his tired and almost despondent expression, it was clear that the grueling MLS season had got the better of him.

After an excellent start to the season that saw the Impact jump out to first place in the Eastern Conference and win the Canadian Championship, the team endured arguably the worst end-of-season collapse the league had ever seen, finishing the season with a dire 1-6-1 stretch and falling to fifth place in the East.

Having only just qualified for the playoffs, the Impact were then easily brushed aside by the Dynamo and shamefully finished the game with eight men, after three players were sent off for fighting and dangerous play. Despite having been drawn into a group without a Mexican side in the Champions League, the Impact were immediately eliminated from that competition as well.

Schallibaum’s contract was automatically renewed for a season after the Impact made the playoffs, but it was clear that the Swiss Volcano, who was suspended last season for a total of five games for in-game misconduct, wouldn’t be able to survive the Impact’s tumultuous end to the season.

But when the club summoned the media for a press conference a few days after its playoff elimination, it was mainly to quell reports which suggested that upper management had picked the lineup against Houston instead of Schallibaum, and that veteran defender Alessandro Nesta would be taking over from the Swiss boss. President Joey Saputo and sporting director Nick De Santis insisted at the time that no decision regarding Schallibaum’s future was made and that they were going to take their time in coming to one.

Saputo wanted to change the Impact’s reputation of always making hasty emotional decisions, but the excessively long wait for Schallibaum’s fate did more harm than good; it raised doubts about whether the Impact actually had a clear direction. 

On Wednesday, a day after Saputo stressed the importance of companies establishing strong identities and being faithful to them in an article in La Presse, the Impact named Frank Klopas as their new coach, ignoring part of the criteria which was regarded by the Impact as essential only a year ago.

An article on the Impact website discussing the team’s search for a coach to replace Jesse Marsch after the expansion season in 2012 stipulated that “the new coach must speak English and French.” Klopas does not speak French, and though it might not be essential that he does, his hiring only further engrains the sentiment that the Impact are just making things up as they go along.

The main idea behind the coach being able to speak French was so that a “natural chemistry” could be fostered within the club and so that the head coach could help improve the Impact’s academy, where the majority of players and staff are native French speakers.

Does all that now no longer matter?

That Schallibaum spoke French and had experience as a coaching instructor for FIFA were some of the main reasons for why he was hired in the first place. Schallibaum was also appointed because the Impact wanted to move away from the more American philosophy adopted by Marsch to a more European one.

Though European coaches have, for the most part, been unsuccessful in MLS, Saputo was adamant at the beginning of last season in declaring “that statistic is overrated” and that “soccer is soccer.” 

But given the way the Impact’s season went, and Schallibaum’s unrelenting frustrations with everything that makes MLS different from the leagues in Europe, Saputo and De Santis have had to backtrack a little; they didn't want to go back to a coach whose experience was limited only to the USA, nor did they want to deal with another European coach.

Klopas was just the right fit since he has experience in Europe as a player in Greece, and experience in North America as a player for the U.S. national team and as a head coach in Chicago.

When Schallibaum was appointed in January, a visibly fatigued De Santis, who had been running around Europe in search of a coach, said he didn’t want to have to repeat the same exercise the following season. After being let go by Chicago at the end of October, Klopas was just a phone call away. Since he and De Santis were already on very good terms, he was an easy choice.

The 47-year-old becomes the Impact’s sixth coach in the five years since De Santis took over as the team’s sporting director. De Santis has had full control over player transfers, but Klopas has also been given the title of “director of player personnel” — though whether that translates into anything meaningful remains to be seen.

Klopas was given a three-year contract, which shows the Impact’s intent to want to finally create some stability on the bench, and if there’s one thing that successful MLS clubs like the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City have in common, it’s that they’ve all had the same coach for some time now.