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jeff crandall

23 October 9:54 am

Yesterday, I began the ambitious 11-part Playoff History series with a bang, taking a look back on the club’s magical run to the 1998 MLS Cup championship. Today, we step a year ahead to the bitter disappointment of an early exit from the 1999 MLS Cup playoffs.

It’s important to preface the club’s playoff experience in 1999 with a bit of context. After winning the 1998 MLS and U.S. Open Cup double, the Fire began a season of disappointments the following year with an early exit at the eventual U.S. Open Cup champions Rochester Rhinos on July 14.

Out of domestic cup competition, the team continued to focus on regular season play for the next two months before taking part in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in Las Vegas that fall. Playing on the rock-hard pitch at Sam Boyd Stadium, the Fire dispatched Trinidadian side Joe Public 2-0 in the first round before going to penalties with Costa Rican power Alajuelense after a 1-1 draw in the semifinal.

In the shootout, Lubos Kubik, who the year before had tallied six of six penalties taken during the regular season and playoffs, shot second and skied his effort high over the bar. His miss was the only one on the night as the Fire fell 5-4 to Alajuelense and leaving the Fire to miss out on the CONCACAF final played two days later.

 “In 1998 we seemed like a team of destiny that was just preordained to win. A year later, it seemed the fates were evening out and there was nothing we could do to prevent the inevitable failure.” – Former Chicago Fire President Peter Wilt

#2 Dallas Burn vs. #3 Chicago Fire – Western Conference Semifinals (best of three)

With the teams splitting their four matchups during the regular season, three of which went to the old MLS shootout to be decided, this playoff encounter promised to be a tight one.

GAME 1 played 10/16/1999 at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas

WATCH: '99 Western Conference Semifinals vs. Dallas

 

Despite their previously more exciting matche, the first half of Game One could have seemed more like a heavyweight bout where no one wanted to land the first punch as neither team registered a shot on goal.

The home side did have a bit more of the play though and took the lead in the 52nd minute through Ariel Graziani when the Ecuadorian striker chipped Oscar Pareja towards the end line before the current Colorado Rapids coach centered across the box for an easy finish.

The goal also marked the first time the Fire had ever trailed in a postseason match.

Dallas would take their lead to 2-0 in the 75th minute when Graziani pounced on a loose ball at midfield. He’d stroll alone into the box, forcing Fire ‘keeper Zach Thornton to the floor before sliding the ball to the charging Mark Santel on the right, leaving the former U.S. international an easy finish past the desperate slide of Fire defender Tom Soehn.

The 2-0 score line seemed to wake the Fire up, pulling one back just four minutes later. Peter Nowak found the ball at the top of the penalty area and played it into the path of substitute midfielder John Ball on the right who slid a low effort past Dallas ‘keeper Matt Jordan.

With the goal, the Fire were charged for an equalizer but saw late efforts from Paul Dougherty, Diego Gutierrez and Ball all go begging, eventually falling 2-1.

GAME 2 played 10/23/1999 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.

Staring elimination in the face, the Fire picked up on the momentum from the end of the first game and took the lead 18 minutes in.

Diego Gutierrez had a misplaced clearance fall for him and took a low blast from distance. The ball ended up running perfectly into the stride of Peter Nowak who took one touch into the box before finishing past Jordan.

The Fire would double their lead 18 minutes later when Roman Kosecki pounced on a bouncing ball in midfield and strolled towards goal before hitting a somewhat weak left-footed effort that eluded Jordan and tucked inside the left post.

Ante Razov (right) would take the score to 3-0 just before the break. Chasing down a long ball out of the back from Jesse Marsch, Razov bodied off the challenge of Richard Farrer before seeing Jordan far off his line. The second-year Fire striker turned with the ball and hit a 20-yard effort that left the Dallas ‘keeper only with a front row seat to see it.

Jordan continued his shocking display just after the half. Nowak chipped a ball into the box from the left for Kosecki who could only get a partial touch to the ball, making it look as if the Dallas ‘keeper would come off his line to claim it. Jordan was a step late in his approach, however and Dema Kovalenko ran on, took a touch and finished from close range to close out the 4-0 score line.

The Fire seemed to have resurrected the demons from Game 1 and after Jordan’s horrific performance in the second game, left Dallas coach Dave Dir to make a switch to veteran Mark Dodd for Game 3.

GAME 3 played 10/27/1999 at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas

The Fire’s momentum from Game 2 seemed to barely miss a beat in the decider with the Fire taking on three minutes to go up 1-0.

On the goal, Jerzy Podbrozny played a quick centering pass for Lubos Kubik who played Ante Razov through into the box. To get through the Dallas back line, Razov spun in stride without even touching the ball before placing his low effort past Dodd.

The series looked all but over two minutes later. Kubik lined up for a free kick 35 yards from goal and whipped a beautiful in-swinger between the penalty spot and the six-yard box where a sliding Jesse Marsch redirected the ball past Dodd and into the top right corner to go up 2-0.

Things weren’t all roses for the Fire in the first half as Razov left the match in the 15th minute with a hamstring strain. Already without Josh Wolff who had suffered a torn ACL back in August, the team’s attack lacked its two leading scorers for the remaining 75 minutes.

As a result, the Fire would start to fall apart after the break. In the 55th minute, future Fire defender Sergi Daniv sent a cross from the right that Zach Thornton could only get a hand to before Chad Deering cleaned up with a header at the back post in the 55th minute.

After the strike, the Fire would look to take back their two-goal lead but Dodd would stand tall turning away three efforts in two minutes from Peter Nowak (67th) Lubos Kubik (68th) and John Ball (69th).

Gaining in frustration, the team was awarded a number of yellow cards but maintained the 2-1 lead into the final 10 minutes.

Things would come undone though when defender C.J. Brown, who had done a great job in marking Dallas striker Jason Kreis throughout the series, was whistled for handling the ball in the box in the 83rd minute. On the ensuing penalty, Jorge Rodriguez sent Thornton the wrong way and brought the match level.

With Dallas holding all the momentum at home, they pushed forward for the game and series clincher in the 90th minute. John Jairo Trellez pushed up on the right and centered a ball that deflected off of Brown and saw Thornton make a swiping effort before falling straight to the feet of Graziani (right) who cruelly one-timed his effort off the underside of the cross bar to complete one of the most stunning comebacks in MLS Cup playoff history.

The final 10 minutes and whole of 1999 left former Fire President Peter Wilt to simply say, “The penalty against us that tied the game seemingly made the final outcome inevitable. Just as 1998 was destined to be our year, 1999 was destined not to be.”

The Fire would be left to look for redemption in 2000 (coming Wednesday)...

22 October 11:09 am

The MLS Cup playoffs are nearly upon us and even with Saturday’s disappointing result, you can feel the excitement for the club’s return to the postseason after a two-year absence. With their playoff qualification back on October 7, the team locked in its 12th postseason berth in 15 seasons, by far the best playoff qualification rate of all professional teams in Chicago in both their first 15 seasons of play and last 15 seasons.

With a strong postseason presence through 15 seasons, I wanted to take a year-by-year look back at the club’s postseason performances leading up to the beginning of the MLS Cup playoffs next Wednesday.

We'll begin where it all started: The magical run in 1998...

The Fire played their first two seasons in the Western Conference and aptly enough, the first saw them finish where the team could potentially finish this season (second place) behind only the league’s regular season champions LA.

#2 Chicago Fire vs. #3 Colorado Rapids Western Conference Semifinals (best of three)

GAME 1: Holding home-field advantage over Colorado, the Fire welcomed the Rapids to Soldier Field on October 1, 1998.

After forcing Colorado ‘keeper Marcus Hahnemann into five first half saves, the Fire would take advantage of Rapids defender Steve Trittschuh for the first time in the series when he pulled down Peter Nowak in the box, leaving refree Kevin Terry to whistle a penalty.

WATCH: The 1998 Playoff Run

 

As he’d done four out of four times during the regular season, defender Lubos Kubik blasted his effort to the top left corner to give the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute. Facing a loss in Game 1, the Rapids would equalize in the 79th when Adrian Paz’s cross from the right was deflected by C.J Brown and found Waldir with a diving header at the back post, forcing the game to a shootout.

In the decider, Tom Soehn and Frank Klopas converted to cancel out goals from Paul Bravo and Chris Henderson in the early rounds. Fire ‘keeper Zach Thornton then took over, making three consecutive stops on David Vaudreuil, Wolde Harris and Peter Vermes before Jesse Marsch chipped Hahneman to clinch the win and give the Fire a 1-0 series lead.

GAME 2: The Fire traveled to Mile High Stadium for Game 2 on October 5, knowing that a victory would push the team to the Western Conference final.

Once again, Peter Nowak would take advantage of Trittschuh, going on a stunning run through the Rapids midfield before being tripped up by the former U.S. international at the top of the box. For the second time in five days, Lubos Kubik would step up and convert his spot kick, this time placing a low effort to the left of Hahnemann in the 42nd minute.

Thornton would stand tall, making two second half saves to give the Fire a 1-0 victory and push the team to the conference finals.

#1 LA Galaxy vs. #2 Chicago Fire Western Conference Finals (best of three)

GAME 1:  Five days after advancing, the Fire traveled to The Rose Bowl to take on top-seeded LA on October 10. The Galaxy would outshoot the Fire 11-5, with the Fire not registering a shot on goal until the 86th minute.

Luckily enough, the two that came with just four minutes to play would be all the visitors would need as Lubos Kubik’s free kick was stopped with a diving save from Kevin Hartman before Jesse Marsch was there on the doorstep to tally his second winner of the postseason, sending the Fire back to Chicago with a  1-0 lead.

GAME 2: The Fire welcomed the Galaxy to Soldier Field on October 16 and would once again take the first lead.

In the 31st minute, C.J. Brown sent a long ball over the top and into the stride of Ante Razov. The U.S. international sped into the box before seeing his close-range effort stopped by Hartman but Captain Clutch Peter Nowak saw the rebound fall to him near the penalty spot and he fired the effort past the Galaxy ‘keeper to give the Fire the lead.

It lasted just six minutes as Cobi Jones cross from the right found a wide open Danny Pena in the box. With acres of space, Pena was able to take two touches before hitting a low effort to the inside post, catching Thornton flat-footed and equalizing just before the half.

LA outshot the Fire on goal 2-0 in the second half but couldn’t convert, forcing the Men in Red to another shootout. Through the first three rounds, the Galaxy held a 1-0 edge as Welton tallied while Nowak, Razov and Soehn all failed to convert for the Fire.

As he did against Colorado in Game 1, Zach Thornton would come up huge at the end, making three consecutive stops on Martin Machon, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Greg Vanney while Marsch converted and Podbrozny hit the back of the net to push the team into MLS Cup in front of 32,744 at Soldier Field.

Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United – MLS Cup ’98 – The Rose Bowl; Pasadena, CA

After wrapping up their conference final series in two matches, the Fire would return to The Rose Bowl on nine days rest while opponents D.C. United came into the match having played just four days prior against the Columbus Crew in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.

Facing the only champions the young league had ever known, the Fire were outshot by United 9-6 in the first half but the advantage wasn’t reflected on the score board.

In the 29th minute, Nowak’s quick combination with Razov saw the Fire captain into the box on the left.  Now in, the former Polish international simply slid the ball across to an open Jerzy Podbrozny who slotted past Tom Presthus to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.

It was Nowak again helping to pad the Fire’s lead just before halftime. This time, the future Ring of Fire inductee cut into the box from the left before unleashing a blast that took a deflection off the chest of Diego Gutierrez, sending Presthus to the right while the ball trickled in on the left.

As he had in so many previous playoff matches, Zach Thornton stood tall in the second half, making six saves and visibly frustrating United to give the Fire an unprecedented MLS Cup title in their expansion season.

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21 October 11:16 am

Saturday night’s flat performance at New England combined with results in New York, D.C. and Houston have put the Fire in a precarious position going into this weekend's regular season finale vs. United. With all five playoff teams now known, the result for the Men in Red means the team could literally still be seeded anywhere from second to fifth in the East come Sunday morning…

With only one regular season game left, this will be the last edition of Playoff Math for 2012 where I look at each team's best and worst case scenarios and potential seedings. Enjoy!

1) Sporting KC 
Current Points: 60 (40 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 63
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 1/2
Last Game: vs. Philadelphia (10/24).

The Rundown: Things have worked pretty well for KC heading into the playoffs. Saturday night they went and earned a second result in New York this season and combined with the Fire’s failure at New England, have nearly locked down the top spot in the East. At the very least, they'll finish second.

The Best Case: All they need to do is earn a draw in their final game against Philadelphia to take the top seed.

The Worst Case: A loss to Philly at midweek combined with a D.C.win over the Fire would push Sporting down to second based on the Goals For tiebreaker. 

Beyond just being a solid team, Sporting have more than earned their position in the table by being smart about how they’ve earned results in difficult places to play.

2) D.C. United
Current Points: 57 (52 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 60
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 1/4
Last Game:  at Chicago (10/27; 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network)

The Rundown: D.C. was the biggest mover of the night and did it all in dramatic fashion by coming back from two deficits to eventually down the Columbus 3-2 behind Lewis Neal’s stoppage time strike. The win propelled United past the Fire and into second, qualified them for their first postseason berth since 2007 all the while helping to end the Crew’s postseason hopes.

The Best Case: A win Saturday against the Fire combined with a Sporting loss to Philadelphia would push United to first in the East. They could still lock down second on Saturday with just a draw against Chicago. 

The Worst Case: A loss to the Fire and a New York win over Philadelphia would push D.C. to fourth and force them to host the Eastern Conference play-in game on October 31 or November 1.

3) Chicago Fire 
Current Points: 56 (45 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 59
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 2/5
Last Game: vs. D.C. United (10/27; 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network)

The Rundown: After winning seven of eight in late summer and fall, the Men in Red have dropped their last three of four. There is reason to be nervous but be glad the team is home and can still control their own destiny as it comes to earning a higher seed.

The Best Case: All it would take for the Fire to lock up second in the East is a win at home against D.C. on Saturday.

The Worst Case: New York will end its match with Philadelphia a half hour before kickoff at Toyota Park -- If the Red Bulls win and the Fire lose or draw against D.C. the team will at least be condemned to fourth place.

Then the team will point its eyes to Denver where Colorado hosts Houston (8pm CT) in the final match of the 2012 MLS regular season – if the Dynamo win with a Fire loss against DC, the Men in Red will fall to fifth and open up the postseason at Houston. If the Fire draw against D.C., they’ll remain fourth regardless of what happens in Colorado.  

4) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 54 (54 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 57
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 3/5
Last Game:  at Philadelphia (10/27; 12:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network)

The Rundown: New York will be disappointed to not have done more against Sporting KC in two huge home games towards the end of the season but will be happy to go into the final weekend with a playoff berth locked.

The Best Case:  Because the Fire and United play and are already ahead of New York, there is no way for Red Bull to finish higher than third. With that in mind, all they need to do is defeat Philadelphia to lock in third place and avoid the play-in game.

The Worst Case: A draw or less to Philadelphia and then Red Bull will also be watching the Houston/Colorado match closely that night. A Houston win would mean the Dynamo would at the very least host New York in the play-in game, while a draw or loss would mean Red Bull would host the Dynamo.

5) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 53 (48 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 3/5
last Game:  at Colorado (10/27 8pm CT on Direct Kick/MLS Live)

The Rundown: Houston’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia Saturday night combined with D.C.’s victory over Columbus clinched the 2011 MLS Cup finalists a place back in the playoffs. Because of their appearance in last year’s championship match, the Dynamo also have to juggle the final group game of CONCACAF Champions League play this Wednesday when they welcome Honduran side Olimipa to BBVA Compass Stadium.

Luckily for the Dynamo, they need only a draw in the game to ensure advancement to the next round ahead of having to close out the regular season and fight for positioning in the East with a  match at altitude in Colorado.

The Best Case: The Dynamo could finish as high as third in the East if both New York and Chicago lose their games earlier in the day and Houston defeats Colorado.

The Worst Case: The Fire and Red Bull both win their earlier matches condemning the Dynamo to fifth and rendering the game that night at Colorado meaningless.  In that case, Houston would travel to D.C. United for the play-in game.

18 October 12:18 pm

Homegrown midfielder Victor Pineda gave fans a little help with their Fire withdrawals over the international break, scoring a highlight reel goal in Reserve team’s 2-1 loss at Houston on Saturday.

The goal stood as the 19-year-old midfielder’s second in 2012 MLS Reserve League play this season and was deemed good enough to garner nearly 2,000 views on YouTube and make the front of MLSsoccer.com on Thursday morning.

“He’s maturing and I think every year its better,” said Fire head coach Frank Klopas. “The Reserve League gives him that opportunity to stay sharp. It’s good that he scored but more important is that he played well – his ability to understand without the ball you need to be able to defend and work hard without the ball – he’s getting better at that.

The rocket strike has led some Fire fans who have only had the opportunity to see the club’s first Homegrown player in Reserve and friendly matches to clamor for his competitive debut before the end of the season.

Given the Fire could still clinch first place in the East and also put themselves in a position for CONCACAF Champions League qualification, one might a 2012 debut might not be in the cards but Klopas left the possibility open.

 “We just have to see how the game situation goes. A lot is up to him and how he does in training as well. He’s a young player, you have to understand that it takes time with him. His attitude is good, he’s sharp and playing well in the Reserve matches so it shows me that he’s ready to contribute if we need him to.”

With Alvaro Fernandez coming off more than a week away with Uruguay as well as travel back Stateside, Saturday's game at New England could provide a perfect substitute opportunity for young Vic.  

WATCH: Victor Pineda Golazo in Houston

17 October 10:17 am

Alvaro Fernandez made his 12th cap and first appearance for Uruguay since November 2011, coming on as a substitute in la Celeste’s 4-1 loss against Bolivia in the high climbs of La Paz Tuesday night. Already down 4-0 by the time he entered the match for Diego Forlan in the 65th minute, Uruguay would pull a goal back through Liverpool striker Luis Suarez’s 80th minute free kick.
 
The loss extends Uruguay’s winless run in qualifying to four matches, with the sole point in that time coming in the team’s 1-1 home draw against Ecuador last month. Even with the slump Uruguay sits in fifth place playoff spot, tied with Venezuela and Chile on 12 points after nine matches played.
 
Fernandez will hope to be back in the squad when CONMEBOL qualifying resumes with a home match against Paraguay on March 22.
 
Flaco will return to Chicago tonight and is expected to be available for the Fire’s match Saturday at New England.

15 October 10:01 am

A lot has changed since my last Playoff Math entry. The team had just come off a disappointing 2-0 loss to Sporting KC while almost no other result in the East had gone the Fire’s way that weekend.  The team would follow the loss to KC up with a disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Philadelphia on Anniversary  Night before earning a solid 2-0 win at New York three days later.

It all goes to show that Playoff Math isn’t always foolproof but a good read nonetheless. With that here’s the latest update, also recognizing the field in the East is down to six teams with Montreal’s elimination last week…

1) Sporting KC (qualified)
Current Points: 59 (40 GF)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 65
Average Opponents Points: 44.5
Magic Number (for first place): 4
Remaining Schedule:  at New York (10/20), vs. Philadelphia (10/24).

The Rundown: Sporting KC took a potential blow to their first place bid by leaving two points on the field late at Crew Stadium last Sunday. KC still has the inside track to finishing top of the conference for the second straight season but will have to navigate a tricky match at Red Bull this week to get there. If they can earn another win in New York, they’’ all but clinch the top spot in the East, then needing only a win the following Wednesday home to Philadelphia.

2) Chicago Fire (qualified)
Current Points: 56 (45 GF)

Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 62
Average Opponents Points:  41. 5
Magic Number (to first place): 9
Remaining Schedule:   at New England (10/20), vs. D.C. United (10/27)

The Rundown: Despite falling in two of the last three matches, the Fire are in the playoffs and still find themselves with a reasonable shot at taking first in the East with the Sporting/Red Bull match looming this weekend. If Red Bull is able to win and the Fire can come away from New England victorious as well on Saturday, they’ll be even on points with first place Kansas City and actually ahead on the first tie breaker (goals for).

That scenario would almost assuredly just require a Fire win on the final of the season vs. DC United to lock down first place (Sporting KC would have make up 6+ goals on Philadelphia in order to jump over the Fire.

More incentive to keep in mind… Should the Fire win their final two games, they’ll at least finish third overall in the MLS standings, giving them a real shot at the CONCACAF Champions League should either Sporting KC or San Jose make MLS Cup.

3) D.C. United
Current Points: 54
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 60
Average Opponents Points: 52.5
Magic Number (to qualify): 2
Remaining Schedule:  vs. Columbus (10/20), at Chicago (10/27)

The Rundown: D.C. has the most difficult remaining schedule of the group but with them hosting sixth-place Columbus Saturday, can step into the playoffs with just a draw Saturday against the Crew.  With United facing the Fire on the final day of the season, D.C. has plenty of incentive to go for wins in both games in order to possibly finish with home field advantage in the first round. Should the Fire and Sporting KC completely collapse the Capital City club even has an outside shot at first in the East.  

4) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 53
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 59
Average Opponents Points: 47.5
Magic Number (to qualify): 3
Remaining Schedule:   vs. Sporting KC (10/20), at Philadelphia (10/27)

The Rundown: New York’s form the last four games combined with front office shake ups and chatter about head coach Hans Backe’s status for next year can’t fill a Red Bull fan full of confidence. Still, they control their own playoff destiny and can qualify as well as play spoiler this weekend with a win at home vs. Sporting KC.

With the Red Bulls going 10-0-3 through their first 13 matches this season at Red Bull Arena, both Sporting and the Fire found the chink in the armor there in recent weeks. Even still, New York remains 11-2-3 at home this year and shouldn’t be underestimated with their backs a bit against the wall on Saturday.

5) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 50
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Average Opponents Points: 33.5
Magic Number: 6
Remaining Schedule:  vs. Philadelphia (10/20), at Colorado (10/27)

The Rundown: Despite having a reasonably easy schedule to close the 2012 campaign, Houston has made things sort of difficult on themselves down the stretch, going 1-1-1 in their last three matches all against sides outside of the playoff picture. Luckily, they still have the easiest schedule of all remaining playoff teams, hosting Philadelphia this weekend before visiting Colorado on the 27th.

With that high-altitude trip looming on the final day, the Dynamo would do well to take care of business Saturday against the Union where a win would necessitate just a draw on at the Rapids. A win Saturday combined with a Crew loss at DC would push Houston back into the playoffs for the second straight season.

6) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 49
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 55
Average Opponents Points: 38
Magic Number: 8
Remaining Schedule: at D.C. United (10/20), vs. Toronto FC (10/28)

The Rundown: Another late goal last Sunday at home vs. Sporting KC likely salvaged the Crew’s season, keeping the team within one point of fifth place Houston heading into a harrowing six-pointer Saturday at DC.

A victory keeps the team in the playoff hunt heading into the last match of the season, a very winnable home game vs. Toronto. A win plus a Houston draw or loss puts the Crew in the driver’s seat. They’ve played with nothing to lose since August, no reason they should stop now.

From a traveling fan perspective, all of Fire nation should want the Crew to sneak into the playoffs and the Fire to have a chance at them in the first round. 

This Week's Predictions:
New York Red Bulls 2, Sporting KC 1 
Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0
D.C. United 1, Columbus Crew 1
Houston Dynamo 2, Philadelphia Union 1

If those hold true the standings coming out of the weekend would be...

1) x-Chicago - 59pts. (47 GF)
2) x-Sporting KC - 59pts. (41 GF)
3) x-New York - 56pts. (56 GF)
4) x-D.C. United - 55pts. (50 GF)
5) Houston - 53pts. (47 GF)
----------------------------------------
6) Columbus - 50pts. (41 GF)

Let's hope I'm right!

13 October 10:10 am

With only one Chicago Fire player away on international duty, this could have been a very short international wrap.

Taking a different angle, my aim is to show the international nature of the current roster by recapping how all of the first team player’s national sides did in World Cup qualification Friday night…

Uruguay – Called back to Uruguay for the first time in a while, midfielder Alvaro Fernandez was an unused sub, watching from the sidelines as a Lionel Messi brace led Argentina to a 3-0 win over La Celeste in Mendoza.

Flaco and Uruguay remain in fourth place in CONMEBOL qualification and will hope to rebound on Tuesday when they travel to La Paz for a match against second from bottom Bolivia.

USA – The Fire’s American contingent might have been biting their finger nails much of Friday night as Juergen Klinsmann’s side eeked out a late 2-1 victory at Antigua & Barbuda. Making his first national team appearance since 2010, forward Eddie Johnson nodded the U.S. ahead in the 20th minute before Antigua’s Dexter Blackstock equalized five minutes later.

With the U.S. looking disjointed for much of the second half, Johnson would reward Klinsmann’s confidence in him by heading home U.S. debutant Alan Gordon’s 90th minute cross to give the American’s a 2-1 win.

That victory combined with Guatemala’s 2-1 win over Jamaica (in which former Fire midfielder Marco Pappa played 68 minutes) means the Americans and los Chapines sit tied on 10 points and need only a draw against each other on Tuesday for both teams to advance to next year’s final round hexagonal.

Costa Rica – In the Group B rubber match, Fire defender Gonzalo Segares got an early birthday present as Jose Cubero’s 31st minute goal stood to give Costa Rica a valuable 1-0 victory away to El Salvador.

With the win, los Ticos return to San Jose needing only to defeat a lowly Guyana side that has taken just one point from five matches in order to advance.\. Costa Rica defeated Guyana 4-0 during their earlier group game played in Georgetown.

Mexico – Already qualified for the final round, Pavel Pardo and Guillermo Franco might have looked on Friday night to see Javier Hernandez, Oribe Peralta, Andrew Guardado and Angel Reyna strike to help Mexico batter Guyana 5-0 in Houston.

They’ll close out the semifinal round Tuesday night against El Salvador in Torreon.

The Netherlands – Former Dutch youth international Sherjill MacDonald may or may not have watched as Rafael Van der Vaart, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Reuben Schaken eased the Dutch to a 3-0 victory over Andorra in Rotterdam.

The victory keeps Holland with a perfect nine points through three matches in UEFA’s Group D ahead of the team’s visit to also perfect Romania Tuesday in Bucharest.

Germany – Arne Friedrich was probably grinning from ear to ear Friday afternoon as Die Mannschaft demolished the Republic of Ireland 6-1 in Dublin. Germany got braces from Marco Reus and Toni Kroos as well as single strikes from Miroslav Klose and Mesut Oezil in the win.

Sitting alone atop Group C with a perfect 9 points from three matches, the Germans return to face second-place Sweden in Berlin on Tuesday.

 Italy – Paolo Tornaghi’s Azzuri had a little trouble in the first half but eventually overpowered Armenia 3-1 in Yerevan. Andrea Pirlo put the Italians ahead with an 11th minute penalty before Henrigh Mkhitaryan equalized in the 28th, taking the teams into the break at 1-1.

Italy would respond with two goals in the second half through Daniele De Rossi (64’) and Pablo Osvaldo (82’) to earn the three road points.

The victory keeps the Italians on top of UEFA Group B with seven points ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Denmark in Milan.

09 October 10:04 am

It’s not every day you can bump into Ante Razov, Hristo Stoitchkov, Zach Thornton, Lubos Kubik, Peter Nowak and Frank Klopas all within the matter of about five minutes, but that’s exactly what happened to me at Monday’s 15th Fire Anniversary Celebration.

In all, the alumni in attendance along with the current players in the room combined for 3,569 competitive games and 64 championships for the club.

The names above were just a smattering of the nearly 20 Fire alumni that returned for the special occasion. Rubbing elbows with all the dignitaries in the room gave way to perhaps the most important part of the night where Fire a number of the guests in attendance spoke to the Tradition, Honor and Passion of the club and worked to inspire the current roster for greater things to come.

Rousing numbers were given by Jesse Marsch, Hristo Stoitchkov (with great translation from Denis Hamlett), Peter Wilt, Brian McBride, Diego Gutierrez, Peter Nowak, Julian Posada, Frank Klopas and Chris Armas.

It was the last two who perhaps had the most touching moments.

A hometown guy, Klopas pointed to the teams and people that laid the groundwork for soccer in the city of Chicago ahead of the Fire before drawing attention back to the special accomplishments of the inaugural 1998 double-winning team that he was a part of, saying “This group of guys was special and I see many similarities between them and the guys we have right now. We aspire to great things and that means bringing another championship back to this city.”

Finishing up the proceedings, Armas looked to the alumni to his right then pointed to the current roster and simply said, “All of us assembled here are behind you. Go and win a championship.”

What a night indeed.

Kudos to Section 8 Chicago and specifically the 15th Anniversary Committee for pulling together a night no one in the Fire family will soon forget. Check out select photos below...

08 October 9:57 am

One hundred and forty-one years ago today, the Great Chicago Fire set the city ablaze, destroying 3.3 square miles of the city.

Writing for the Chicago Tribune, a man named Michael Ahern reported that Catherine O'Leary's cow started the blaze by kicking over a lantern in the family barn at 137 DeKoven Street.

Other rumors surfaced it was the fault of Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, the first person on the scene of the fire who ran to free the animals from the barn before awakening the O'Learys. Still others place the blame on Louis M. Cohn who had admitted to have been gambling in the barn with O'Leary's son.

Whatever the case, all three names are enshrined in Chicago lore for the event that destroyed a large part of the city that immediately built itself back up again.

The Chicago Fire Soccer Club

One hundred and twenty-six years later, after a number of attempts at professional soccer in the city of Chicago with the Cats, Mustangs, Sting and many others, the Chicago Fire Soccer Club was born at the city's iconic Navy Pier.

With the name derived from the city's defining event, the Fire had an immediate, built-in tie to the community. Just over a year later, the tradition of success began as the Fire clinched an unprecedented expansion MLS and U.S. Open Cup double. 

Much like O'Leary, Sullivan and Cohn, names such as Peter Nowak, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Ante Razov, Diego Gutierrez and many others wrote their names in Fire history that year and in those to come.

Sunday afternoon the above five names plus a guy named Hristo Stoitchkov took part in a celebratory Alumni match with Section 8 Chicago and Wisla Chicago at Toyota Park (PHOTOS).

Watching the game was like old times, seeing the guys connect like it hadn't been over a decade since they all last played together. A 46-year-old Stoitchkov put on his usual magic, connecting with a brace while Razov tallied a third.

Tied at 3-3, the game went to penalty kicks where Razov, Stoitchkov, Gutierrez and Nowak all converted to give the combine Legends/Section 8 team the victory. 

A little over an hour later, the club got a great anniversary present as the final whistle blew in Columbus with the Crew and Sporting KC playing to a 1-1 draw, pushing the Fire into the playoffs for 12th time in 15 seasons. 

Tonight, the above names will join the likes of Chris Armas, Zach Thornton, Jesse Marsch, Justin Mapp, Evan Whitfield, Dasan Robinson, Kelly Gray, Andy Herron, Mike Sorber and Denis Hamlett and 400 members of the Chicago Fire family to celebrate 15 years of Tradition, Honor and Passion at the Chicago History Museum. 

Happy Anniversary to all! 

04 October 4:37 pm

On Tuesday, the final three players of the #Fire15 list presented by TrueCar were unveiled. Like any list that involves a bit of democracy, there was a bit of good debate who or who shouldn’t have been included among the players deemed the top 15 in club history. Having voted multiple times myself this past summer, I don’t think I ever came back with the same 15 players…

With that in mind, I thought it appropriate to take a look at seven guys that you could make a strong case to be in the 15.

Hristo Stoitchkov – One of two players on my Fire15 list back in July that didn’t make the final tally, Stoitchkov was perhaps the most high profile player ever to wear the Fire badge when he was in Chicago from 2000-02. The “Mad Bulgarian” known for his exploits with his country at the 1994 World Cup and Barcelona would go on to record 24 goals and 22 assists in 71 matches, starting only 40.

The legendary attacker scored a number of highlight reel goals but his most important would come when he tallied the first goal in the team’s 2-1 win over Miami to clinch its second U.S. Open Cup title in 2000.

Jim Curtin – If there ever was an unsung hero with the Fire, it was probably Jim Curtin.

The tall defender with the curly, blonde locks didn’t at first look a player that would go on to appear in an understated 186 competitive matches for the club from 2001-07.

Equipped with an infectious personality, the Fire fan favorite would go on to win two U.S. Open Cups and a Supporter’s Shield and was named the 2004 Fire Defender of the Year.

Diego Gutierrez – Though might not have known much about it at the time, Gutierrez was the scorer of one of the biggest goals in Chicago Fire history, with his 45th minute redirection of Peter Nowak’s strike in MLS Cup ’98.

Having done two stints with the Fire from 1998-01 and 2006-08, Gutierrez was often a constant in the Fire midfield, amassing 197 games, 10 goals and 34 assists (good enough for fifth all-time) while being part of four of the club’s six domestic titles.

Just as important though were Gutierrez’s off-the field contributions. The seven-year Fire veteran was named the club’s Humanitarian of the Year three seasons in a row from 2006-08 as well as winning the league-wide award in 2007 for his work with the Nothing But Nets anti-malaria campaign. 

Damani Ralph – There are few rookies that have been as successful as Damani Ralph was in 2003 when he tallied 14 goals across all competitions and helped the club to the 2003 MLS Supporters Shield, U.S. Open Cup (where he scored the winning goal in the Final) and an appearance in MLS Cup.

The following season the Jamaican international joined his strike partner Ante Razov as the only other player in club history to tally double digit goals twice, recording 14 more to lead the team in 2004.

Following two successful seasons in Chicago, Ralph moved to Russian club Rubin Kazan always leaving Fire fans to wonder would could have been had he stayed with the Men in Red just a bit longer…

Gonzalo Segares – The Costa Rican international was the other player on my list that didn’t make the cut. One of the top defenders in club history, Segares just recently appeared in his 200th game and has owned the left back position since joining the club in 2005.

Also one of the most attack-minded defenders all-time in MLS, Segares sits behind only Lubos Kubik in offense created by Fire back liners, tallying 12 goals and 16 assists across all competitions.

Josh Wolff - Another one I wrangled back and forth with, Wolff is the club’s third all-time leading goal scorer with 39 and adds to that 19 assists over just 106 games.

The last remaining active player from the 1998 double-winning team, Wolff and Razov formed one of the most dangerous striker partnerships in the league from 1999 to 2002.

Having won an MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups, Wolff also holds the distinction of being the only player in Fire history to tally four goals in a match, doing so in a 5-1 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal victory over Dallas in 2000.