Talk to Chicago Fire players and you can hear Frank Klopas' voice coming through.
This team clearly follows its coach's lead, and Klopas is on the verge of leading the Fire back to the MLS playoffs.
Just don't tell him that. Klopas is taking nothing for granted, and he's made that clear even as the Fire has climbed the Eastern Conference ladder to its current third-place position.
The Fire has won four of its last five games and is 8-3-2 since June 17. What makes that especially impressive is that in that time the Fire has lost its playmaker and assist leader, Sebastian Grazzini, and leading scorer, Marco Pappa, plus reserves Federico Puppo and Rafael Robayo. The Grazzini saga could have been especially distracting when there were questions over whether the club would pick up his contract option, then ultimately loaned him to a club in his native Argentina after he left the Fire for vague "family reasons."
While the Fire briefly suffered offensively after Grazzini's departure, the players never wavered in their focus and quiet determination to keep moving forward.
Credit Klopas and assistants Mike Matkovich, Leo Percovich and Aron Hyde.
"Obviously, our goal is to make the playoffs," said veteran midfielder Daniel Paladini, "and right now we feel like we control our own destiny. Last year we were in a little bit of a hole kind of watching other teams and hoping other teams would lose and this and that, but now we control our own destiny game by game."
Paladini is a case in point. For a while he seemed the forgotten man, among the 18 players dressing on game day without seeing the field. Then Logan Pause broke a couple of ribs, and Paladini has started the last three games and played well, scoring in Sunday's 3-1 win over Houston.
"There's 30 guys on the team, so when guys like myself are called upon, we have to be ready, and Frank and the staff have been there behind our backs," Paladini said. "He told us before the season everybody on the team will contribute at some point or another, and that's why they hand-picked all of us."
"I think the staff's done a great job all together," added veteran forward Chris Rolfe. "They've made the right moves throughout the season to try to improve the team. We're here with a group of guys that we're fighting for each other. We're a good group, we get along well. There's a good spirit in the locker room. You've got to credit that to the staff and the front office (Javier Leon and Guillermo Petrei) for sure."
Klopas won't be the MLS Coach of the Year. That award will go to San Jose's Frank Yallop, barring an epic collapse.
Klopas will survive without that kind of hardware. He's got other, team-oriented hardware in mind, and in the meantime he wants to make sure his team plays the right way.
"We just want our guys to step on the field and take the game seriously like we always do," Klopas said of Saturday's home friendly against Mexican side Santos Laguna. "We're representing the Chicago Fire and the city here. When you put the jersey on you've got to wear it with honor and respect."
And that's just for a friendly.
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