John Guppy walked into an unenviable task in the summer of 2005 when he replaced the wildly popular and successful Peter Wilt as the second general manager of the Chicago Fire. The Windy City club heads into the 2006 MLS season after tasting mixed success last season. Guppy's Fire appear poised to build on their narrow loss to New England in the 2005 Eastern Conference Final and head into this season with the hopes of establishing their new stadium as a bastion of success. Mr. Guppy was kind enough to spend some time with ESPNsoccernet's Kristian R. Dyer to discuss the team.
ESPNsoccernet: Mr. Guppy, we are slowly closing in on your one year anniversary with the Chicago Fire. How has your tenure with the club been so far and what has been the greatest challenge you've encountered in the Windy City thus far?
JG: The last year has truly been one of the most hectic, challenging, yet enjoyable years of my life. Chicago is a great city and a great soccer market and the potential for MLS and the Chicago Fire is tremendous. With the stadium opening up in June, our responsibilities and the corresponding expectations are enormous. The biggest challenge is simply managing time effectively and maintaining the organizational focus on the critical 2006 objectives.
ESPNsoccernet: Is Bridgeview still on track to open this summer? Will the stadium be entirely complete or do you anticipate a situation like in Frisco where Pizza Hut Park was not completed on time?
JG: The construction of the Stadium is on track -- if not a few days ahead of schedule. The stadium is 85 percent complete and the construction team is focused on ensuring the timely completion of the last 15 percent of the project. Of course, there is always the potential for construction challenges to pop up, but everyone is very confident we will be ready for the test event on June 11th and the Grand Opening on June 25th.
ESPNsoccernet: Last season, the Fire had an up-and-down regular season, but pulled out an impressive playoff run last fall. Reasonably, what are your expectations for the club this year?
JG: One of the exciting aspects of MLS is the fact that at the beginning of each season probably every team believes they have a chance to win the MLS Cup. We certainly think we have the talent to raise a trophy this year. Some of the roster tweaks we have made in the offseason, combined with the experience gained by our rookie class, I think gives the team a much better balance and chemistry. We were all bitterly disappointed to lose to New England in the Eastern Conference Final last year, and remembering that feeling is a motivating factor for us to go one step further this year.
ESPNsoccernet: You spent several years with the MetroStars, working under Nick Sakiewicz. What did you glean from the MetroStars general manager and how did he impact your managerial style?
JG: Very few people appreciate all the emotional equity Nick has invested in the Harrison Stadium development project. If he ever decides to write a book about this project I can guarantee it will not be a short read. Being close to Nick throughout much of this process, taught me that nothing comes easy in this business, never to let things get you too down, and to keep fighting for what you believe in.
ESPNsoccernet: One of the most maligned and criticized components of your time with the team was "Metro Playoff Fever," an advertising campaign utilizing local figures and background shots that were graphically edited. Please take us inside how the process was originally spawned and brought to development. How involved were you in "MPF"?
JG: "Maligned and criticized" is not too far from "memorable and discussed"! The whole concept of MPF was to: (a) create a campaign that was noteworthy and could cut through the clutter of the fall sports and entertainment marketplace in New York, and (b) try to differentiate the playoffs from regular season games making them a celebration of sorts. One of the tactics -- although there were many others -- was to get people wearing red party hats in support of the team. The hats quickly became a talking point that helped generate word of mouth chatter about the MetroStars and the playoffs. Unfortunately fortune did not favor the team on the field making the creation of "celebratory/party-like" experience difficult. One thing the recent purchase by Red Bull did, was ensure that MPF will never be seen again!
ESPNsoccernet: Do you regret the decision to implement MPF in 2003 and then again, in 2004?
ESPNsoccernet: Shifting gears, Bob Bradley is a man with strong ties to both the Chicago Fire and then, later on, the MetroStars. Why was Bob's tenure with the Giants Stadium team so much more unsuccessful then his time with the Fire?
JG: That's a great question, and I honestly do not know the answer. Bob is a good coach, as were/are Carlos Queiroz, Bora Milutinovic, Octavio Zambrano, and Carlos Alberto Pereira. Many talented coaches with different backgrounds have tried unsuccessfully to win a championship with the MetroStars. It's perplexing.
ESPNsoccernet: When you left the MetroStars to join the Fire, Tim Leiweke commented that you are coming to Chicago from an organization that was a role-model within MLS. Shortly thereafter, Alexi Lalas was brought in from San Jose as AEG acknowledged that not all was well with the club. Was AEG sending a mixed message with these two moves?
JG: I don't think so. As a fan you are only really interested in one thing -- the performance of the team on the field, i.e. is the team entertaining and does it win championships? As an owner, you care about the performance on the field, but also its performance as a business. As the president of a team, I believe you must build a business that can succeed irregardless of wins and losses. Clearly, on-field performance has a significant impact on attendance, ratings, sponsor interest, etc., but I am very proud of the fact that during my time with the MetroStars, we consistently managed to achieve our annual budgets, despite inconsistent on-field performance.
ESPNsoccernet: What role did you play in Steve Guppy's signing with D.C. United last season and what is he currently up to?
JG: Steve Guppy is my cousin. In the mid/late nineties, Kevin Payne and I used to work together and we would keep tabs on Steve's performances when he was at Leicester City. Steve had always said he was interested in one day playing in the states, and I guess Kevin filed that idea away in his mind somewhere. I was aware of the conversations between DC United and Steve, but obviously had no direct or indirect involvement. It's a shame he got injured and things didn't work out. Last time I talked to him he was back in England fishing in the river near Winchester.
ESPNsoccernet: It's been an exciting offseason for MLS: new ownership, new stadiums and sponsorships. What MLS development from the offseason most excites you and the Fire for 2006?
JG: Is that a trick question? Clearly, what excites me most is the development of the Bridgeview Stadium. With the greatest respect to Columbus, Galaxy/Chivas, and FC Dallas, I think Bridgeview will be the best soccer stadium in the country. It is truly spectacular, and I know our great fans will help create a very special environment at each and every Fire game.
ESPNsoccernet: Finally, one issue that affects fans is several MLS cities is the construction of soccer-specific stadiums. As an entity sponsored by AEG, The Fire's stadium will closely follow the model of Los Angeles. How will Bridgeview differ from the Home Depot Center? Will it truly be soccer-specific or was it designed more along the lines of being a concert venue?
JG: Bridgeview Stadium is not owned by AEG, it is owned 100% by the Village of Bridgeview. AEG, however, is extensively involved in the project as the management company operating the stadium, anchor tenant (Chicago Fire) and also booking agent for music. The stadium has been designed with the specific scope of being a "soccer and music" venue, and many of the learnings from the Home Depot Center have been kept in mind. The most obvious difference is the fact that the concert stage is built into the southend of the stadium. This means that concerts do not need to be set up on the actual field, allowing soccer games and concerts to be held 24 hours apart. This is a tremendous benefit for the scheduling of soccer games.
ESPNsoccernet: Mr. Guppy, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join ESPN Soccernet for this interview. All the best in 2006.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNSoccernet who covers MLS and college soccer. This summer, he will be appearing in the World Cup themed book 'Everyone Has a Footy Story' as the representative from the United States. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com