Chicago Coach Hamlett Has Local Ties That Bind
Thursday, May 8, 2008; Page E01
Denis Hamlett has been coming to RFK Stadium annually since MLS's inaugural season 12 years ago, first as a player and then as an assistant coach. But when the former Einstein High School and George Mason University star arrives this evening for the Chicago Fire's match against D.C. United, dozens of friends and family will welcome him with renewed admiration.
Hamlett was named Chicago's head coach this past winter, which, in itself, was a notable achievement. But the appreciation for his success heightens when you consider that he emigrated from Costa Rica with four siblings when he was 10, toiled as a defender in secondary pro leagues, had his playing career derailed by a stroke, was an MLS assistant for 10 years -- two more than the longest-serving head coach in league history -- and was passed over for the top job by at least four other clubs.
"I've always had to get extra tickets for people when we've come to Washington," he said early this week, "but I've got a feeling that number is going to be higher."
Under Hamlett's guidance, the Fire is off to a 4-1-1 start, good for second place in the Eastern Conference, and has conceded a league-low three goals heading into tonight's game against United (2-4).
Hamlett, 39, got a taste of head coaching last summer on an interim basis between Dave Sarachan's firing and Juan Carlos Osorio's hiring. But when Osorio bolted for the New York Red Bulls this past offseason, Hamlett was finally promoted.
"It was a long wait," said Peter Wilt, the former Fire president and general manager who hired Hamlett in 1997, a year before Chicago entered MLS as an expansion club. "I know it was frustrating for him. I don't think he got the respect he deserved, but now we're seeing what he can do."
Hamlett grew up in Puerto Limon, a Costa Rican city of 100,000 on the Caribbean coast. He would often join his father, Sidney, a fisherman, on a cranky wooden boat to catch lobster. "When I look back at that now, I say, 'What was I thinking?' " he said, reminiscing about the teetering vessel.
His grandmother would escort him to church every Sunday morning, and upon exiting, his father would be waiting outside to take him to Juan Goban Stadium and watch the local club, Limonense.
When his parents separated, his mother moved to New York. A visa lottery allowed her to call for her children four years later, and the family settled in an apartment at 16th Street and East-West Highway, just beyond the District line.
Like thousands of suburban kids, Hamlett played youth soccer, first for Takoma Park-based Los Lobos and then for the Potomac Mustangs. He was a forward during four years at Einstein, but after spending one season at UNC Wilmington, he transferred to George Mason and was converted into a defender.
After being named to the all-South Atlantic Region team as a senior in 1991, he spent two summers with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the APSL, a semipro outdoor league, and winters with indoor teams in Harrisburg, Pa., and Anaheim, Calif.
When MLS launched in 1996, Hamlett was the 12th overall draft pick by Colorado, one slot before Dallas chose Tom Soehn, now United's head coach. After playing every minute of 31 matches -- he sat out one game -- and being named the Rapids' defender of the year, Hamlett was preparing for the 1997 season when, during preseason workouts, he leapt and turned back awkwardly to head the ball away from the net.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until he woke from a nap with what he called a "massive headache. . . . I couldn't eat, I couldn't sign my name."
At age 28, Hamlett had suffered an artery dissection, which caused a stroke. He underwent further testing in Los Angeles and Baltimore, and although doctors told him the chances of a recurrence were slim, he decided to retire.
"I thought about it: 'Is it really worth it?' " he said. "I went back to Denver to see how it would feel being around the team. Something was gone. I had played all my life, but I didn't have that drive, that intensity anymore."
Still on the MLS payroll, league officials tried to place Hamlett with a team's coaching staff or front office. Wilt agreed to bring him in as an assistant, six months before he even hired a head coach (Bob Bradley) to oversee a team that would not start play until the spring of 1998. Hamlett scouted players, processed ticket orders and served as a liaison in the community and with youth programs.
Hamlett assisted Bradley, the current U.S. national team coach, for five years, Sarachan from 2003 until last summer, then Osorio for the last half of the 2007 season. All the while, he interviewed for several head coaching jobs, only to be turned down.
"I was fine with it because I was in a great situation and I was learning," he said. "I felt I was moving upward."
After Osorio departed, Hamlett was again a finalist, and this time, his experience with the Fire, relationship with the players and ability to speak Spanish got him the job.
"For the most part, the transition has not been difficult," he said. "You know the group, you know the organization, you know what you want to accomplish, you know you have the guys' respect. I've been part of some great teams here. The difference now is that I have to set the tone, and I'm glad I've gotten the chance to do that."