Adapting to America: Carlos de los Cobos, Chicago and a Wheel of Cheese

De los Cobos

This Saturday at Toyota Park, for the first time in Major League Soccer history, two Mexican-born coaches will go head-to-head: Martin Vasquez of Chivas USA (or, You’re-Not-Really-Chivas) and Carlos de los Cobos of the Chicago Fire. While Vasquez has extensive experience in American soccer, having moved to California at the age of 12 and having played in Major League Soccer for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and San Jose Clash, de los Cobos had spent little time in the United States and had limited English skills when the Fire boldly picked him to replace Denis Hamlett as head coach this past winter.

I had the chance this week to sit down with Carlos and talk with him about his first few months in Major League Soccer. What I didn’t tell him was that I have a vested interest in his success: not just as a Fire supporter myself, but because I’ve got a wheel of cheese riding on it in a bet with a friend on the Fire’s success (or not) this season in making the playoffs.

Shortly after the Fire announced they had hired de los Cobos, it became clear that others had vastly different opinions on the Fire’s selection. Former Fire President and General Manager Peter Wilt disagreed with my thoughts on the wisdom of plucking an outsider and plonking him in the curious waters of Major League Soccer and wrote a column on this very site explaining why he had some reservations.

After five games of the season, it’s far too early to tell how it will all shake-out, and the Fire are mediocre so far in results with two wins, two losses and a draw.

For his part, de los Cobos is adapting to Major League Soccer. Indeed, he has already adapted: the entire interview, and a dinner last week with de los Cobos and Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas, was in English, with a translator only needed to clarify one question.

I first asked de los Cobos what had surprised him most about MLS. He said that he’d been impressed by the speed and strength of his players and how they fit into the system of play:  he emphasised that he feels good about the fact that they are “very disciplined tactically and respect the system.”

But that discipline has a downside. “Sometimes players need to take the initiative, change things up and take chances,” he continued, saying he was encouraging players to do the unexpected and not worry if it doesn’t always work out. “We don’t have a Blanco,” he continued, observing that the departure of the Fire’s creative fulcrum for the past three seasons Cuauhtémoc Blanco had left something of a void. Instead, he said, he was encouraging attacking midfielders Marco Pappa and Justin Mapp to take creative roles and “improvise.”

Mapp, something of an enigma in recent seasons, is a player de los Cobos thinks can play a big role if motivated to play consistently. Many fans have lost patience with Mapp — still only 25 but a talent who has not fulfilled his potential –  though the coach clearly believes motivating and demanding that consistency from Mapp can bear fruit. So it may turn out that, unless the Fire go out and sign another creative player after the World Cup, the wheel of cheese turns on the man the Fire under Peter Wilt traded for as a teenager back in 2003.

De los Cobos’ focus on the need for more improvisation and creativity from MLS players is interesting, because the other word that pops-up again and again in conversation with de los Cobos is a near antonym of improvisation: discipline, on and off the field. This word has real roots for de los Cobos; delivering his words thoughtfully and seriously, you tend to believe that what he says has meaning.

And so he explains that as a young player, de los Cobos moved to Mexico City at the age of 18 to play for Club América, an experience that has obviously shaped his life: young and, as he put it, “immature”, he explained that he grew up fast there and relied on what he called his “principles of life” to “complete his dream” and ultimately play for the Mexican national team at the 1986 World Cup. He wants, he said, to instill in young players those principles of respect for others and respect for oneself.

Texas

Curiously enough, his dream to play professional soccer was not one he had in his earliest years: he was born in Matamoros, a city in the northeast of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a stones throw from Texas.

There, the main sports are American football, baseball and basketball. It was only after de los Cobos’ family moved to central Mexico that he started to play soccer at his religious school, eventually signing as a teenager for local second division team Querétaro FC before his big break signing for Club América.

His wandering coaching career after playing saw him eventually impress with an unfancied El Salvador team in their unsuccessful 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. Two of those players, Julio Martinez and Deris Umanzor, have now joined de los Cobos in Chicago, but the coach isn’t playing favourites: both have been benched since their debuts. De los Cobos said he has high hopes for both, but they need to — especially in Martinez’s case — adapt to the MLS style of play.

De los Cobos is adapting to Chicago, too, he said as we concluded our chat: a “beautiful” city, though he hasn’t yet found a house, living out of a hotel and often too “focused on my job” to get out and explore the neighbourhoods.

He loves the stadium the team calls home, though after a record home opener crowd, the fall-off in attendance last Saturday prompted him to say that the responsibility to fill the stadium falls on himself and the team by playing well and winning.

Down by the locker rooms of Toyota Park, as I prepared to leave and gazed at the imposing passer-by (Wilman Conde), de los Cobos commented on his excitement about the quality of the people and facilities at his disposal: “I have the tools,” he concluded. All he needs to do is make use of them so this fan gets his wheel of cheese. . .

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