Welcome to Fire20, a new weekly series that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club by making deep dives into the team’s history. We’re starting this week with Bob Bradley, the club’s first manager and the man who led #cf97 to their first— and only— MLS Cup championship.
Following an illustrious career coaching college soccer, one that started at just 22-years-old, Bob Bradley found himself working as an assistant under Bruce Arena at D.C. United. A position that he was drawn to after spending time working with Arena at the University of Virginia.
After a taste of coaching at the professional level, Bradley’s ambitions grew and he seized an opportunity that not many coaches have in their careers. He was offered the head coaching position of the Chicago Fire, an MLS expansion side that would begin play in the 1998 season.
When Bradley arrived at the 1997 MLS Expansion Draft, he found himself in an unfamiliar position: head coach of a professional side for the very first time.
Bradley took a ruthless approach to the draft, using the first and third overall picks to secure two Los Angeles Galaxy players—Danny Pena and Kevin Hartman respectively.
Now, if one were to take a moment to reflect, these picks were very sensible from Bradley and the rest of Chicago’s staff. Hartman had unimaginable potential as a goalkeeper, and went on to be one of the best shot-stoppers MLS has ever seen. His name is also now next to two of the most impressive records in MLS history, as he is the only player to ever start over 400 matches, and he holds the record for shutouts with 112.
As far as Pena goes, well, he had been a professional soccer player in North America for almost a decade when Chicago selected him. He was a versatile player, as he could slide into both a back-line as well as play in the middle of the park, and seemed a proper player to build the rest of the team around.
However, following Chicago’s picks, the Galaxy panicked. Their up-and-coming shot-stopper had just been stolen away from them, and a long-time North American professional was plucked from their roster.
As it turned out, the pair of players would never even pull on a Fire shirt. The Galaxy, virtually instantly, had arranged a deal and sent starting goalkeeper Jorge Campos and soon-to-be American starlet Chris Armas to Chicago to retain the services of Hartman and Pena.
And it is here, that our story begins truly begins.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Bradley stated: “I think Jorge is very excited to come to Chicago. He feels it’s an exciting opportunity.”
Bradley could not have been more wrong about the Mexican international.
At the time, Campos was an extremely exciting acquisition for the club. Many people believed that it was important for the Fire to sign a big-name Mexican player, and El Tri’s first-team goalkeeper seemed like a perfect fit. However, Bradley quickly discovered that he had made a mistake.
Campos seemed to have a distaste for the cold climate of Chicago. He played for the Fire for only one season, and made just 8 appearances for the club after losing the starting role to eventual 1998 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zach Thornton.
As a result, it did not take long for Campos to move back to warmer climates. He left the Fire to join Pumas of Liga MX—the league in which Campos stayed until he retired in 2004.
However, this was not all bad for Chicago, as Campos’ departure meant they were no longer footing his monstrous salary. Which, at the time, was the league maximum of $192,500 a season.
Arriving as a new team in an already established league is a daunting task for any team. It can be seen abroad, as teams are promoted and relegated throughout the many leagues of European countries, and to this day remains a constant challenge in the world of football.
For Bradley and the Chicago Fire, their debut season in 1998 was one that was particularly daunting. The difference between being promoted into the top-flight, and joining it as a completely new club, is, well, just that.
New clubs have no culture about them. They have no traditions that fans abide by, songs for their players nor an established presence in their cities. It is because of reasons like these that Bob Bradley’s first season as a head coach is particularly impressive, and that the importance of the second player acquired in the trade for Hartman and Pena cannot be overlooked.
That player was Chris Armas.
Armas had played two seasons in MLS with Los Angeles before he was shipped off to Chicago. But it was not until he pulled on the Fire shirt that he truly showed his capability as a player.
He led the Fire to their first, and only MLS Cup in their inaugural season in 1998, and was also a part of all four U.S. open cup winning teams and helped the team secure the Supporters’ Shield in 2003.
Beyond his time in Chicago, Armas was also earned 66 caps for the United States Men’s National team, and was named to the team’s 23-man roster for the 2002 World Cup, only to have a knee injury keep him out of the tournament.
And finally, after 12 seasons in MLS, Armas announced his retirement and finished his career as a bona fide Fire legend.
But this isn’t the story of Campos and Armas. This is the story of the 1998 season and how influential it was for both the Chicago Fire and soccer in the city.
The 1998 season put the Fire on the map right from the get-go in their time in MLS. Today, they are widely seen as a one of the perennial organizations for both the league and U.S. Soccer, and even in wake of the last few seasons, remain a franchise that can draw players from around the world.
If this story illustrates anything, it’s how one player, or one decision from a manager, or one trade, can have a lasting effect on a club. And with the Fire finding themselves in similar position today as they were in 1998, time has a funny way of rhyming.
Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez were handed virtually a new team. They had to gut the roster, rebuild and bring back a sense of excitement about the men in red. They have brought in several big-name players, an All-Star game and are preparing to once again make the Fire a relevant team in MLS.
So stay strong, Fire fans. And you may just be surprised at the influence a single person can have on a club.