Road Warriors: Hamlett has Fire scorching hot
By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
Bridgeview, IL (Sports Network) -
Chicago Fire head coach Denis Hamlett has paid his dues.
The 39-year-old has been a member of the Chicago-based Major League Soccer franchise in some capacity since its inception in 1998, serving as its top assistant coach since 2001 before finally getting his chance to run the on-the-field product before the 2008 season.
"I'm taking this opportunity, I'm going to run with it and do the best I can," he said in the preseason. "I waited 10 years for this opportunity."
The opportunity arose after the turmoil that resulted from last season's slow start. Management decided to fire Dave Sarachan in mid-June after his four- year tenure as coach, and Hamlett was given the job on an interim basis until Juan Carlos Osorio was hired almost a month later. After leading the Fire to the Eastern Conference Championship, Osorio bolted for New York, giving Hamlett the chance to finally take over as just the fourth coach in franchise history.
"It's impressive. [Hamlett] got passed over for the job many, many times but the guy kept working and waiting for his chance," Fire defender Bakary Soumare said. "Sometimes you don't have to look overseas for a coach. Get someone in- house, someone who knows the players and the system and someone who prides himself, and you know this guy isn't going to walk away from us. From the first day of preseason, he just brought a different mentality and it shows on the field."
Denis Hamlett's squad is tied atop the Eastern Conference with the best record in MLS.
The Costa Rica-born Hamlett, who currently resides in Chicago, is making the most of his opportunity.
After this past Sunday's dominating 5-1 win at New York, the Fire are tied atop the Eastern Conference with the best record in MLS, including an astonishing 4-0-1 road record.
"I think all season we have been playing very consistent on the road," noted Hamlett. "We have a mentality and a game plan when we're on the road, and my guys stick to it, and so far it has shown to be working."
"We have that mentality of when you go on the road you have to get the points," said second-year pro Soumare, who has started all nine games this season at center back. "Whether it's New York or New England or wherever, it's the same mentality."
ATTACKERS TO BURN
Not only are the Fire (6-2-1) the best road team in MLS, they are the top defensive club and the second-highest scoring club, which can be attributed to not only the structure and preparation from Hamlett, but the overall talent at his disposal.
The team has a collection of attackers that few MLS teams can match, with Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chris Rolfe and Justin Mapp leading the way. Blanco plays in the middle with Rolfe and Mapp on the wings, forming a triangle in the midfield that also includes lone striker Chad Barrett up top. When the team employs that particular formation - which is usually the case on the road - it can attack with just four players without sacrificing its defensive shape in the back.
"As far as the guys up front, Blanco chasing, working hard and Chad [Barrett] and Justin [Mapp] and [Chris] Rolfe, these guys are attacking guys, but at the same time they know that they have to work on the defending end because if they do that they know as a whole we are so much better," Hamlett said. "It is just a tribute to those guys for working so hard, and when you do work that hard, good things happen."
If the team employs the more traditional 4-4-2 formation, Rolfe can be moved up top, with veteran John Thorrington - who has three goals in four starts - playing in the midfield. Tomasz Frankowski and Andy Herron can also be slotted up top, giving Hamlett a number of options in the attack.
Along with the number of different personnel options, the Fire can attack using a number of different tactics as well. Chicago has the skill to tighten up and make tic-tac-toe passes to open things up, or it can stretch the field and play the long ball over the top, which it did a number of times against New York on Sunday.
"When you have attacking guys who can get the balls in tight spaces, the defense is a little worried so they don't want to be as tight," Hamlett said. "As a result they get stretched a little and with the speed that we have up front you want to be able to capitalize and keep them off balance as far as playing some long and some short [passes]."
The Fire have given up a league-low six goals in nine games, and as the only MLS team to surrender fewer than 10 goals this season, it is safe to say the collection of defenders is just as impressive as the group of attackers.
The emergence of Soumare in the middle is a big part of that, but so is the work of Gonzalo Segares, Brandon Prideaux, Diego Gutierrez, Logan Pause and Wilman Conde, among others.
In the win over New York, Chicago gave star defender Conde just his second start of the season after the player demanded a trade in the offseason. The move seemed to work, with Conde playing beside Soumare in the middle of the backline, Segares and Prideaux at left and right back, respectively, and Pause and Gutierrez in the midfield behind the attacking players.
"[Conde] had a good stretch of play [in reserve games]," said Hamlett of the reason for giving the Colombian the start. "He was itching to get on the field and we know this guy is a big-time player and he wants to play, he wants to be on the field. We felt we needed to shore up the field so we put Diego Gutierrez in there, not having John Thorrington available [because of back spasms]. We made that move and put Wilman in a spot that we thought that he's very comfortable. It's a good pair with Wilman and [Soumare] back there and now Diego goes to the middle and works very well with Logan."
When Thorrington is available for selection, which will probably be the case when the Fire are back in action June 7 vs. D.C. United, Hamlett will have even more options.
"I think our back group with [goalkeeper Jon Busch] and the four guys in front of him [are excellent] but it is just the whole team mentality," Hamlett said.
HAMLETT VS. OSORIO
After the match Sunday, Hamlett downplayed the drama involved with facing Osorio, the coach who deserted the franchise in the offseason.
"All along all week it was business as usual," Hamlett said. "[The media] is what kept making this more than it was. We went about our business as far as training, preparing ourselves, watching videos and then coming with a game plan and sticking with that game plan. That's what we did today."
But a few players had a little different opinion on the game.
"We lost our head coach, not too much was told to us, and that's the way we'll keep it in this room," Barrett said. "[Osorio] came here [to New York], he said, 'For family reasons.' Okay, we'll believe him and we wish him the best, but coming in here we wanted to say, 'Hey, you shouldn't have left us.' [Hamlett] has done a great job, stepped up and really formed a system for us to play in, and we've responded very well."
"Osorio came to Chicago and did a very good job," Soumare said. "He has that defensive mentality that a lot of coaches have and he helped us. But at the same time he was only here for a short period so it's not like you can give him 100 percent of the credit for our success this year, because he was here last year.
"We are playing a totally different style. Denis has coached under [Osorio], coached under Bob Bradley, coached under Dave Sarachan, a lot of different coaches and he took it all in and now he has his own style. He is really, really committed defensively, starting with the top on back. We know when we keep the ball on the ground and knock it around we will be successful. It has been good so far."
KEEP ON (FIRE) TRUCKING
The Fire know it's a long season and the chances of them holding onto the first place spot in the Eastern table throughout are slim, but they are a confident group that seems to have the right perspective.
"In MLS anybody can beat anybody," offered Barrett. "We've seen that. Houston beat us last week, [last-place] San Jose beat them the next week. The team that can stay focused for the longest [will be the most successful] because it's a long season. We have a good young core group on this team led by veterans that have been around. They are going to keep us in check, Denis is going to keep us in check and we're going to keep going."