On the 126th Anniversary of the Chicago Fire, October 8, 1997, Major League Soccer awarded Chicago a franchise. Fast forward a year, Chicago is the center of the sports world. Michael, Scottie, Phil, and Dennis are leading the Bulls to the last of the two three peat. Of course, before the end of the summer, they'd all be traded or retired. Across town you have the Cubbies making it into the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Kerry Wood made a sterling debut, even at one point striking out 20 batters in a game. Oh, and we had that Sosa v McGuire battle. Oh the nativity.
MLS did the fans of soccer in Chicago a great turn by allocating four Europeans that would provide the backbone of the team, and provide memories that many still hearken back to. They were cleverly called the Eastern Bloc: Peter Nowak, Roman Kosecki, Jerzy Podbrozny, and Czech defender Lubos Kubik. Then the great Peter Wilt brought in Jorge Campos and Chris Armas from Los Angeles. Ante Razov, and future coach Frank Klopas. The coach, or manager - what Europeans used to call the gaffer - was future USA/Egypt coach Bob Bradley. This year would be truly special, and very memorable for the lexicon of soccer history.
As with any team, there's records of who did this first, who did that. The first two goals (a 2-0 win over the Miami Fusion) in Fire history are from Roman Kosecki and Ritchie Kotschau, Then they came home - well, what home was at that point - Soldier Field where in front of 36,000 fans, they won against Tampa Mutiny 2-0, with Klopas scoring both goals. Their first two matches were against teams that aren't around anymore. Think about that, folks.
Through the first part of the season the club reeled off a massive eleven-game winning streak, which had an important win in the middle of it against the LA Galaxy. LA's then-coach, Octavio Zambrano made some distasteful remarks about the Fire, saying they play not to lose - even though the Fire out-shot the Galaxy in the match. This would make them one of the teams to follow, had there been much in the way of soccer media at the time.The winning streak included first goals for legend C.J. Brown, Jerzy Podbrozny, and Lubos Kubik. Zack Thornton used his 6'3 frame to occupy the net, sometimes looking like he was in all four corners simultaneously. Nowak was rampant during the whole winning streak, scoring goals and assisting on others. He was also named "Player of the Month" for May 1998.
Just as the club started looking great, the Easter Bloc all went down with injuries. Nowak kept going down with leg injuries - first it was a hamstring, and then a left knee. Kotschau went down with a seriously sprained ankle, Kosecki and Podbrozny both did in their hamstrings. This created a chance for the rest of the Fire roster to become better and gel as a team - players such as Josh Wolff, who was a Project-40 player (the Generation Adidas of the time) and showed ability to sneak a goal in at the end of a match, or Campos with heroic saves.
The Fire finished the season 20-12, good for second in the old Western Conference, which would surprise a lot of people. Then again if they were surprised with that, the playoffs would floor people. They fought through the first round home and away ties with the Colorado Rapids, before playing the heavily favored, first place Los Angeles Galaxy. As is with most, if not all playoffs in MLS history the LA Galaxy were considered a shoo-in for the MLS Cup Final. The Fire took the game back to Soldier Field, and then to a shootout, to down LA and qualify to play DC United.
DC United were the class of the league at the early stages, and were the only champions that the league had known. Now they were playing this upstart team, so DC's fans could be over confident, and think they were going for a three-peat.
That's until they ran into two Fire goals in the first half, one on a great play from Nowak to Razov that took Tom Presthus out of the goal, so Nowak could slip it to Jerzy Podbrozny. The second was from Diego Gutierrez, on a deflected shot from Nowak. Peter Nowak was named MVP for his efforts in the match, even though many people still to this day credit Armas with winning the title for his defending of Marco Etcheverry.
Tom Presthus, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos, Carlos Llamosa (Mike Slivinski), Tony Sanneh (A.J. Wood)
Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Richie Williams, Ben Olsen, Roy Lassiter, Jaime Moreno
TOTAL SHOTS: 22 (Lassiter 6, Etcheverry 6)
SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Lassiter 3)
FOULS: 8 (Lassiter 2, Sanneh 2, Etcheverry 2)
CORNER KICKS: 12
SAVES: Presthus 1
CAUTIONS: Sanneh 25', Etcheverry 33'
POSSESSION PERCENTAGE: 52%
Zach Thornton, C.J. Brown, Lubos Kubik, Francis Okaroh, Diego Gutierrez, Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch
Jerzy Podbrozny, Peter Nowak (Josh Wolff), Roman Kosecki (Frank Klopas), Ante Razov (Tom Soehn)
TOTAL SHOTS: 10 (Podbrozny 2, Razov 2, Gutierrez 2)
SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Podbrozny 2)
FOULS: 27 (Razov 5)
CORNER KICKS: 3
SAVES: Thornton 8
CAUTIONS: Razov 31', Gutierrez 50', Marsch 60'
POSSESSION PERCENTAGE: 48%
The awards started piling in after the season, Zach Thornton was named Keeper of the Year. Kubik was awarded the BIC tough Defender of the Year, Razov the scoring champ, and Bob Bradley got Coach of the Year. The MLS Best XI was paced by players from Chicago: Armas, Kubik, Nowak, and Thornton.
Obviously, there were plenty of memories to go around. What are your recollections of 1998? Share them in the comments!
Next time, it's 1999 - how do the Fire live up to the expectations put on them after their first season?