When Logan Pause stepped in for an injured Jesse Marsch in the safety-first part of the midfield early in 2003, the Chicago Fire were MLS royalty.
The Men in Red had blown a hole through Bruce Arena's dream-team, derailing DC United's 'best team' in both the Open Cup and MLS Cup in their debut season. They'd never finished lower than fourth in the four seasons since. And they had some swagger - their forward duo of Ante Razov and Damani Ralph was clever and physical, the Dempsey/Martins of their time; Damarcus Beasley was less than a year away from scoring Champions League goals with PSV; Justin Mapp had a full head of hair, and was a precocious attacker in a time when such a thing from America was a pipe dream.
It has been 12 long years since that Fire group won the Supporters Shield and the Open Cup, and the one constant since those days has been Logan Alan Pause: Captain, servant, leader. Friday night, the Fire ended their season in joyous fashion, sending off their longest-serving player to retirement with a 2-1 win over Houston. The win, the sixth for the Men in Red in MLS play, allowed the lone remaining connection with the Fire's glory days to retire in a happy context. Logan Pause goes out a winner.
For the rest of us, those of us who remember, there was a new sense to the bitterness, a warm sharp glow that reminds us of how it used to be, when we were MLS royalty.
Logan came into the league in 2003, drafted in the third round of the SuperDraft from North Carolina. That team's captain was Chris Armas. If the name doesn't immediately bring to mind the man, I'd suggest you spend some time getting acquainted with the best defensive midfielder America has yet produced. Chris Armas was a three-lunged bulldog with psychic powers; he tackled like you'd done something unforgivable, and he wanted you dead, and somehow it was almost always clean. Almost. And then he'd say something funny that made you forget you were angry, and off you went.
So when Logan joined the Fire, Armas was the captain but he'd had his first tragedy, missing the 2002 World Cup with injury that spilled into the first half of the season. Marsch was the veteran schemer who could adapt to whatever role was required. And Pause was the eager rookie, the cautious, neat-footed striver who kept the game in front of him and kept it simple.
As he rides off into the sunset, the picture is different. Not his role in it - Logan was, to the last, cautious and neat-footed - or even any of the key roles, but every other surrounding fact. The team he captained onto the field Friday night cast the floodlights upon slightly down-market casting decisions in every key role: for the pivotal clever striker (a la Razov), Quincy Amarikwa? These Fire, if royalty, are the kind who pawn the silver to pay the servants.
Within those constraints, viewed through the rancor-free lens of the long-term general optimist, it was a positive outcome in a season not overburdened with them, certainly. Grant Ward's penalty-drawn was expertly taken by Jeff Larentowicz to pull the Fire equal - that bit was nice, despite its complete lack of LOGAN PAUSE SCORING ON HIS FAREWELL.
There were marking errors and an absolutely ridiculous Omar Cummings finish to blame for the deficit. When Brad Davis whips one of those screamers in there, the main impulse is to take cover until the drones go away; then Cummings has that finish, and one finds oneself imitating Frank Yallop: shoulders near ears, hands outstretched palms-up - whaddayagonnado?
So the second half melted away, the game drawn and apparently about to be quartered. Logan left, and the cheers echoed around half-full (but mostly-sold!) Toyota Park, and Valhalla beckoned - but a weird thing happened: Somehow these late-game substitutes found the swagger and aggression of those great teams of Pause's younger years.
Florent Sinama-Pongolle was the first substitute to display the auld swagger. Moving into a supporting striker role, the Frenchman's anticipation and touch allowed the Fire to keep the ball; that bit of confidence found the entire side flowing into attacking positions. Chris Ritter, the actual substitute for Pause, displayed some surety in several attacking forays and technique in cracking a dipping drive off the crossbar.
It was the youngest of the substitutes that made the difference. Grant Ward, loanee from mighty Tottenham Hotspur, played hesitation on the right wing in stoppage time to make the yard necessary to spin a cross onto Sinama-Pongolle's head. With the Houston keeper Deric scrambling, Florent made no mistake, stabbing his header inside the near post as Section 8 turned to bedlam in celebration of the club's fourth home win of a very long MLS season.
Chicago ends 2014 with a record of six wins, 18 draws, and 10 losses. There are very many questions to be answered before play begins in 2015, questions asked both within and without the club. The old curse goes thus: May you live in interesting times.
Today, bereft of their history, no longer royalty, spinning into an uncertain future, the Fire are as interesting as they've ever been.