I was 7 years old on March 21st 1998. For those of you who haven't committed that date to your heart and memory. That was the day of the first ever match of The Chicago Fire Soccer Club. I, of course, was not there. Aside from being 7 years old and not even being so much as allowed to cross the street by myself, the game was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, against the now-nonexistent Miami Fusion.
The Fire won that night by a score of two to nothing: A harbinger of what was to come. After the end of the season, the score in soccer was - Chicago Fire, two trophies; the rest of MLS, zero. *
If I am to be completely honest I don't remember much from that year - I remember going to and watching games, to be sure, but I don't remember what happened. It wasn't until Soccer United Marketing created Kick TV and put the 1998 MLS Cup final on YouTube that I remembered that it was Jerzy Podbrozney who scored the game winner from Piotr Nowak, and that it was also Nowak who got the assist when Diego Gutierrez iced the game. I also needed YouTube to see the Mythical Frank Klopas Golden Goal - a week later, at Soldier Field, to win the team's first of four US Open Cups. The most in the modern era. Though I know them now, these were not my memories of the Chicago Fire.
My memories are of the 2001-2006 version of the club. USA legend Eric Wynalda, who scored 10 goals in 12 appearances for the club in 2001. Three future US National team captains: Chris Armas, Carlos Bocanegra, and DaMarcus Beasley. The Fire's all time scorer, Ante Razov. The only player to win European Player of the Year, La Liga, UEFA Champions League, the US Open Cup - not to mention one of FIFA's '100 greatest players of all time' - Hristo Stoichkov. All of these great players were also dedicated to the badge, and the city in which they played.
The team keept evolving, bringing in new players who were just as commited to the excellence which their forebears established. Logan Pause, who - despite criticism and derision - became THE Captain in 2011, the one constant in the squad, like CJ Brown and Diego Gutierrez before him. There was the short little Ohioan by the name of Chris Rolfe, who scored a goal against AC Milan in 2005 that became as mythical as the Chicago-flag shirt on his chest that day. To guys who maybe are less remembered, but just as important, like Thiago, or Paolo Wanchope, or Ivan Guerrero, or Andy Herrón, who was always good to his mother. And the list goes on and on and on.
What I remember most was not how they were all successful. Or how they won trophies, or even how they failed to get past the New England Revolution in the playoffs. What I remember most was the commitment. Day in and day out, the commitment to the badge, the commitment to the guys in the seats, and the commitment to each other. This was the era from which the club motto - Tradition, Honor, Passion - was born.
Which brings me to Wednesday night's 1-1 draw against Toronto Football Club at BMO Field in Ontario.
We all knew what was at stake. Even with a heartbreaking loss to Seattle last weekend, the dice rolled in favor of the Fire. They were two points of a playoff spot. And - what luck! - they were playing one of the most hapless clubs anywhere in Toronto FC. It hadn't even been a week since they fired the top guy in the organization, for what I can only assume was incompetence.
Really, it should have been a cake walk. Get in, get three points, and prepare to defend the fifth spot with your life against the old playoff rivals on Saturday. Instead, what we got was what Hot Time in Old Town's Mark O Rourke called, "a tepid, milk toast performance against one of the worst teams in the league."
The two goals in the game came within 4 minutes of each other. The Fire struck first. When this year's revelation Dilly Duka - who had shown promise in his years before moving from Columbus, but never materialized it consistently - put in a cross that missed everything but the back of the net.
Then Robert Earnshaw put it in from Toronto. Gonzalo Segares brought what was the soccer equivalent of a pump fake, and Earnshaw blasted it past a hapless Bakary Soumare into the net.
Sean Spence put it aptly in his recap of the game. "Presented with a road match against one of the league's real road apples, Frank Klopas wrote a lineup of unwavering sameness: Sean Johnson, Anibaba, Berry, Bakey, Sega, BigRed, Alex, Duka and Nyarko, Magee and Rolfe. A defensive block of five, a back-and-forth dude, and a four-man attacking block tasked with moving and creating.
Toronto, in contrast, looked like a team recently acquainted. They played in combination only rarely, preferring to play in bursts down the flanks - and yet, somehow, this was sufficient.... Watching that live..., it felt like the whole thing was right there - and we just couldn't be bothered to reach out and grab it."
That last sentence, right there. It bothers me.
"it felt like the whole thing was right there - and we just couldn't be bothered to reach out and grab it."
It bothers me because the teams of the past would. When times were rough and down, someone, be it Piotr Nowak, or Ante Razov, or DaMarcus Beasley, or Cuauhtemoc Blanco, or Chris Rolfe (version 1), or Chris Armas, or Marco Pappa, or Sebastian Grazzini, or Patrick Nyarko, or Mike Magee would have picked the game up by the scruff of the neck and would have won that game Wednesday night in Toronto.
I have no Idea what's changed in the past month in a half. Maybe it's all the front office drama. From the transfer window disaster, to the Designated Player that it turns out can't play 90 minutes, to the white party controversy, to the two editorials written by Director of Communications Dan Lobring - It's been one thing after another, after another. Maybe the other teams have adjusted and found out this Fire team. Maybe the players know that and subconsciously are doubting themselves. Maybe a combination of the two has caused the players to be mentally exhausted.
I don't know. What I do know is that that team Wednesday night wasn't the Chicago Fire team that gutted out so many games last year. That wasn't the team that scrapped and clawed their way to being two points back of a playoff spot. This wasn't that Chicago Fire.
Tonight, they have an opportunity to rectify this.
Tonight, they play the team that haunts my dreams at night.
Tonight, they play the New England Revolution in what is essentially a playoff game - as they all are now.
Tonight, they have a chance to start to save not only themselves and this season, but also the memories of those who came before them: Jerzy Podbrozney, Chris Armas, Piotr Nowak, the man called Hristo.
Tonight is also the seventh to last game of the year. Tonight they start to run out of time.
* For those of you complaining that LA won the Supporters Shield, It didn't officially exist until the next season.