By J Hutcherson (Apr 28, 2020) US Soccer Players - As ESPN's The Last Dance makes clear, the biggest story in Chicago sports in the summer of 1998 was the Chicago Bulls. They won the final NBA championship of the Michael Jordan era amid the kind of turmoil that justifies a multipart documentary series. What could an expansion MLS team do that same summer to have any kind of relevance? Well, the Chicago Fire won MLS Cup and the US Open Cup while turning their games into events at Soldier Field. So how good was the team that surprised its city and league that season?
A few places were missing on the MLS map when the league started play in 1996. The biggest was not having a team in the 3rd-largest media market in the country. Nobody designs an American sports league and leaves out Chicago. Major League Soccer corrected that in their first expansion class, with the Fire joining the league in 1998. It wasn't easy. Original employee Peter Wilt successfully fought against an attempt to call the team the Rhythm, opting instead for a homage to a disaster. With the enthusiasm of a World Cup summer, the Fire went to work building a competitive team in a league where eight of the 12 teams would make the playoffs.
Bob Bradley got the nod for his first head coaching job at the pro level. He joined from the new league's first dynasty, familiar with how to win after his time as an assistant at DC United. The Fire played to its likely base in building for year one. They got Mexico goalkeeper Jorge Campos in a trade with the Galaxy and signed Bundesliga veteran and Polish international Peter Nowak along with Jerzy Podbrozny to appeal to the city's large Polish community. They added European veterans Roman Kosecki and Lubos Kubik. That gave the new team a spine from back to front of experienced players. The Campos trade was due to the Fire's maneuvering in the expansion draft. Chicago took Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman with their second pick. The Galaxy saw him as their starter, trading Campos and Chris Armas to get Hartman back. With the 11th pick overall, the Fire got MetroStars backup keeper Zack Thornton, adding Francis Okaroh from New England and Diego Guttierez from the Wizards with picks 13 and 15. In the college draft, the Fire traded its second-round pick to DC United in a deal that moved Jesse March to Chicago. With the first pick of the supplemental draft, they took CJ Brown from the minor league San Francisco Seals. Once again hitting up the Galaxy, Chicago got Ante Razov. Josh Wolff joined through a league assignment.
Chicago opened the season with an expansion derby, beating Miami 2-0 in Fort Lauderdale. It was the same score for their home opener, a shutout of the Mutiny in front of over 36,000 fans at Soldier Field. Results turned quickly with the Fire losing five in a row. After a 3-1 home loss to DC United on May 2, it was easy enough to see this team as a collection of parts. Those parts came together quickly. Chicago won 11 games in a row, helped in part due to MLS playing through the World Cup. They lost Campos to international duty but otherwise took full advantage. The schedule certainly helped, beating Dallas three times during the streak and getting lopsided wins over the Rapids, Clash, and Wizards. With the Galaxy minus Cobi Jones, the Fire beat them at home on May 20 and away on penalties on May 30. The streak ended at Dallas on July 4. What followed was a five-game losing streak that threatened to undo Chicago all over again. Part of it was facing better teams at full strength, a problem the Fire needed to solve if they were going to be more than a streaky team that eventually faded.
Campos and Thornton
When Campos returned from the World Cup, his position in the team was already in question with the emergence of Zack Thornton. After two years as Tony Meola's backup, Thornton had played six MLS games. Now, he was emerging as one of the better keepers in the league. Still, Campos was the star. Mired in a losing streak, his old team was coming to town on August 8. With 37,122 the announced attendance at Soldier Field for a day game that featured nothing other than soccer, Campos started for the Fire in what was a 1-1 draw late. Sensing an opportunity, the Fire took advantage of the countdown clock that stopped for things like substitutions. With less than a minute left, the Fire subbed in Thornton and moved Campos to forward. It wasn't the cleanest transition with LA promptly scoring to win 2-1. Coming out of that game, it was clear that goalkeeping for the Fire was Thornton's job. They regrouped to finish the season winning seven of nine games.
Chicago finished 2nd to the Galaxy in the Western Conference, 68 points to 56. With the other expansion team also in the postseason, making the playoffs only counted so much in 1998. The Fire opened against Colorado, a team they had beaten three out of four times in the regular season. In a best-of-three series, Chicago won 2-1 at home and 1-0 away. LA advanced with 6-1 and 3-2 wins over Dallas, clearly the favorite in the Western Conference finals. Jesse Marsch scored the game's only goal in Chicago's 1-0 win at the Rose Bowl to open the series. Shifting to Soldier Field, Peter Nowak had the Fire up in the 31st minute with the Galaxy equalizing in the 37th. That meant a shootout with the Fire becoming the unlikely Western Conference representatives in the 1998 MLS Cup.
Dynasty game in MLS
MLS may have wanted to be the league of no dynasties, but three seasons in and they already had one. DC United were back-to-back champions, finishing 1st in the East and taking out a strong Columbus team 4-2 and 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals. With over 51,000 in attendance at the Rose Bowl, it looked like DC's game to lose. Jerzy Podbrozny scored for Chicago in the 29th minute with Diego Gutierrez doubling the lead in the 45th. Nowak assisted on both goals with Thornton keeping the clean sheet. Chicago had won the championship in their first season, but there was a game left on the schedule.
The Open Cup
The 1998 US Open Cup presented the Fire with the unlikeliest of scenarios. Already MLS Cup champions, they had the chance to win another trophy at home in their expansion season. All it required was Chicago advancing through the Open Cup field and a hurricane relocating the neutral site final to Soldier Field. The Fire beat the Chicago Sockers in the Third Round, knocked out the Clash on penalties in the quarterfinals, and saw off Dallas in the semis. That set up a Chicago vs Columbus final on August 29 at the soccer-specific home of the Hampton Roads Mariners. Instead, a hurricane postponed the final, eventually rescheduled for Chicago on October 30. With Chicago technically the away team, 18,615 showed up on a Friday night to see their team five days after the MLS Cup win. Chicago's celebrations continued with Podbrozny converting a 45th minute penalty. Stern John equalized for the Crew in the 53rd, sending the game into overtime. Frankie Klopas scored in the 99th minute for the Fire's second trophy in less than a week. The expansion team now had both trophies.
So how good was the 1998 Chicago Fire?
Zack Thornton won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Lubos Kubik was Defender of the Year. Bob Bradley was Coach of the Year. Though the Fire didn't put a player near the top of the goalscoring table, Ante Razov emerged to lead the team with 10 goals. Josh Wolff tied the rookie record with eight. In between those two was Roman Kosecki, putting together a strong season of his own. The Fire combined older players with emerging talent in a way that allowed them to overturn losing streaks and not get caught up in winning streaks. Once they established their game, it became a team effort that was difficult to breakdown. That made them the most surprising team in MLS in 1998, but not the best. DC United and the LA Galaxy topped that table. Though both eventually lost to the Fire, they had the kind of game-changing offensive players that Chicago lacked. Cobi Jones was arguably the best player in MLS that season, losing the MVP award to Marco Etcheverry, arguably not the best player on DC's roster. That United club had Roy Lassiter still banging in goals and the Rookie of the Year in Ben Olsen. DC won the CONCACAF Champions Cup that August and the Copa Interamericana in December. The difference for the Fire in 1998 was the emergence of Zack Thornton and Bob Bradley recognizing that. It quickly turned them into a team that wasn't capable of giving up.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Logo courtesy of the Chicago Fire