What do you get when you take an overbearing and meddling owner and a stubborn head coach? You get a marriage that was never going to work.
Such is the case in Chicago, where the Fire is looking for its third coach in three years after parting ways with head coach Denis Hamlett, who never did see eye-to-eye with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman, who has taken a hands-on approach to running the Fire that led to a strained relationship with Hamlett.
Where did it all go wrong? It went wrong when Hamlett made the assumption that winning was enough, that doing his job and guiding the Fire to a pair of playoff victories was evidence enough that he was growing into his job in his second year as head coach. Instead of proving his worth, Hamlett became the first head coach in MLS history to not be retained after reaching conference finals in each of his first two seasons in charge.
You will hear Fire officials say that it was a matter of wanting a new direction, and you'll hear rumblings that a lack of trophies did in Hamlett, but you won't hear that from the men who ultimately dumped Hamlett, Hauptman and sporting director Javier Leon. You will instead hear it from technical director Frank Klopas, who has been tasked with doing the dirty work for the Fire's leadership, even though Hauptman and Leon were the men who pulled the trigger.
They aren't likely to face the music and address the decision they made. They will simply continue to play the background while they look for a head coach who will play their game, who will let them be involved, who will allow Hauptman to operate as sort of a younger, soccer version of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
For those of you in the soccer world who don't know who Al Davis is, he's the 80-year-old owner whose need to have his hands in the running of the team he owns has helped turn the Raiders into one of the laughing stocks of the NFL. His need to be in control has led the team to hire inexperienced coaches who would let Davis meddle and simply be thankful for having a job as a head coach.
Perhaps that is what Fire leadership thought would happen with Hamlett, a long-time assistant coach who had yearned for a head coaching job for years. Hamlett didn't play along though. Hamlett had no interest in humoring an overbearing owner so instead of forging a relationship with Hauptman, Hamlett tried keeping him at arm's length. That approach doomed Hamlett to a brief tenure in charge of the Fire, so when Chicago struggled through injuries and inconsistent form at home, the stage was set for the Fire to unload Hamlett after just two seasons.
If control is what Fire officials are ultimately looking for, we will see for ourselves when they make their next coaching hire. Former Fire legend Chris Armas is already being mentioned as a leading candidate despite having exactly one year of coaching experience on the pro level. If he is hired, or if the Fire turn to a coach with no head coaching experience, it will mark their second straight hiring of someone who hasn't been a head coach before, a trend that would lend at least some credence to Hauptman's comparisons to Al Davis.
It isn't as if coaches with little to no experience haven't succeeded in MLS before. Peter Nowak won an MLS Cup title in his first year as a coach (with D.C. United) while Jason Kreis just became the youngest head coach to ever win an MLS Cup title just 30 months after retiring as a player and jumping right into coaching. What must be made clear about those two success stories is that in both instances, the novice coaches were supported by strong front office leadership and understanding ownership that let their soccer people make the soccer decisions. That doesn't appear to be the environment that would await the Fire's next head coach.
Does Hamlett bear his share of blame in all this? He isn't blameless in the sense that he could have done more to establish a relationship with Hauptman, but Hamlett still did his job well and still navigated the Fire through injuries and player unhappiness with their contracts, all while managing a locker room with as many strong egos as any team in the league. The Fire remained a hard team to figure out during its time under Hamlett. Chicago was absolutely dominant on the road, easily boasting the best road record in a league where winning on the road just isn't common, but the Fire was painfully mediocre at home, never really establishing the home-field advantage you might expect at Toyota Park.
In the end, Hamlett's tenure with the Fire was done in by the slimmest of margins, by penalty kick losses in the SuperLiga Final and MLS Eastern Conference Final. A trophy, or even a berth in the MLS Cup Final, might have been enough to buy him another year, but the truth is it might have simply delayed the inevitable. Fire ownership and Hamlett were never going to really see eye-to-eye, were never going to have that relationship needed to produce a championship team. The question that lingers now is whether the Fire will ever find that again with its current ownership.