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Fire20: The One Where Columbus Ran Wild

In a rivalry filled with odd outcomes, perhaps none was weirder than the 2003 season finale, which saw the Men in Red crumble after halftime

Columbus Crew v Chicago Fire
Hey, young ‘uns, here’s a couple guys you might recognize - it’s the NYRB manager and the American who talks Premier League for a living!
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images

In late October 2003, Beyonce’s ‘Baby Boy’ ruled the charts, the USA was getting hip-deep in wars in both the Fertile Crescent and Afghanistan, and the Chicago Fire were the best team in MLS.

It wasn’t really all that close. Bob Bradley’s departure had shaken the team in the offseason, but those nerves were quelled by a deep, talented roster that featured a veteran spine (Zach Thornton, CJ Brown, Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov, straight up the middle from keeper to striker), a boatload of fresh young talent (DaMarcus Beasley on the left wing, Carlos Bocanegra in the back, Damani Ralph murdering fools in attack), and reliable role-players (Orlando Perez, Jim Curtain, Evan Whitfield). The Fire rolled into the final week of the season already assured of the Supporters Shield - still only supported by the supporters, at that point.

They would visit old rival Columbus to wrap up the season. The Crew were a team the Men in Red had gotten used to handling, with the Fire winning nine of the previous 13 matchups; moreover, they had nothing to play for, as they’d been eliminated from playoff contention for a couple of weeks by this point. Which is not to say they didn’t have any talent - this was a 10-team MLS, and the top-line talent was rather more concentrated than we are used to today. This last-place Columbus team featured Brian McBride before he was a Fulham legend, borderline national teamer Edson Buddle, future former MLS goal king Jeff Cunningham, and clever but lightweight attacking mid named Kyle Martino.

One good measure of just how long ago 2003 is is the relative unavailability of any information on this game. (Please, if you’re lucky enough to have seen this game and actually remember it, regale us with your version of events in the comments.) This reporter could find no extant video of this game, which isn’t shocking, one supposes - but the utter lack of any contemporaneous game reports anywhere on the internet reveals just how different 2003 was from today. This was a late-season dead-rubber game, and so no one thought to write everything down, apparently.

What we do know is this: A rather heavily-rotated Fire - no Bocanegra, Beasley or Ralph - cruised into halftime up 2-0 on the hosts. Dipsy Selolwane scored almost off the opening kickoff, tallying in the third minute, then Jesse Marsch doubled the lead with a penalty (drawn by whom? Who knows?) before the half-hour mark. Then the half came, and the game changed entirely.

Any game where there’s three halftime subs is unusual, and these three would swing the game. Columbus brought on all-attack Cunningham to play on the wing and journeyman Freddy Garcia to relieve a guy carrying a yellow; the Fire gave Thornton the rest of the game off, summoning in his place Curtis Spiteri for the first minutes of his MLS career.

They would also be the last minutes of Spiteri’s career. Over 45 minutes of a furious second half, Spiteri would face 18 shots, 10 on goal. He would make four saves, but would surrender goals to McBride (49th), Cunningham (54th), McBride again (67th), Buddle (74), Buddle again (85), and - adding insult to injury - Garcia in the 90th, the only goal of the Guatemalan’s MLS career. Spiteri, only 22, would never play for the Fire again.

That version of La Maquina Roja recovered well from the six-goal deluge, smashing their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs without giving up a single goal, only to fall in the 2003 MLS Cup to the Landon Donovan/Dwayne DeRosario San Jose Earthquakes.