It all comes down to Saturday. With one game remaining in the 2012 MLS Regular Season, the Fire host D.C. United Saturday, Oct. 27 at 3:00 p.m. CT (NBC Sports Network), the meat of the tripleheader sandwich.
While the Fire have clinched a spot in the post season, Saturday’s match is crucial for seeding purposes. With a victory, the Men in Red, currently in third place, will take sole possession of second place. With a loss, the Fire could find themselves as low as fifth place.
Though two-time German World Cup veteran Arne Friedrich is experiencing playoff soccer for the first time in his career, he understands the implications of Saturday’s match.
“Our one goal is to win the game,” said Friedrich.
One of the keys to victory for the Fire will be making sure to get the ball to forward Chris Rolfe. With teams now choosing to man-mark Rolfe, he told MLSsoccer.com that “It’s been a little bit more of a challenge finding the ball.”
Another key storyline for Saturday will be the battle between the Fire’s Austin Berry and D.C. United’s Nick DeLeon, two of the front-runners for the Rookie of the Year race. The former college teammates have been enjoying the campaigns put together by their respective clubs.
“I was dying laughing,” said Berry about D.C. United’s video in which DeLeon says, “I eat defenders for breakfast.”
Berry and his centerback partner Arne Friedrich both made Brian Straus and the Sporting News’ short list for the highly-anticipated year end awards.
With both head coach Frank Klopas and striker Sherjill MacDonald imploring fans to get in the stands early Saturday, ‘keeper Sean Johnson stopped by WGN Wednesday morning to discuss the importance of home field advantage at Toyota Park, so make sure to get in early and spur your Men in Red on to victory.
With one game left and all to play for, there's no doubt that Saturday's game against D.C. United (LIVE 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network) is the the Fire's biggest game of the season to date. A win and the team finishes in second place in the Eastern conference and enjoys home field advantage for the Conference Semis. A loss or tie against DC and the Fire's destiny is out of their own hands, with a place between third and fifth in the cards. That being said, lets look at some tactical points for the big match.
Andy Najar - don't fool me twice
Andy Najar's coming out party as a right back was against the Fire in August when he put in a Man of the Match performance in a 4-2 win at RFK Stadium. Najar should start at right back again Saturday afternoon and the Fire will need to a much better job of containing him this time out. Against the Columbus Crew last week, Najar pushed forward constantly and provided an outlet for DC on the right. Columbus allowed Najar far too much room and he duly obliged by looking to cross the ball whenever possible.
WATCH: Fire vs. United Preview
D.C.'s midfielders look to switch the field of play to the advanced Najar whenever possible, something the Fire must look out for. For all his attacking prowess however, Najar can get caught too far up the field, something the left side tandem of Gonzalo Segares and Patrick Nyarko will be looking to exploit if the opportunity arises.
Stopping United from playing our game - target striker
D.C. sets up in a similar way to the Fire, namely with a target striker with an attacking mid/second striker playing just behind him. Against Columbus last week, Maicon Santos played just behind target man Lionard Pajoy. The partnership is still in its infancy, but should continue from the start on Saturday afternoon.
Against Columbus, Pajoy and Cesar did not combine well, often drifting too far from one another to effectively link up. DC's wide men, Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon, did their best to move central and support Pajoy whenever possible. Both of the wide players tendency to move inside caught Columbus short handed on a few occasions, especially when one of the wide men failed to drop back.
D.C. are not a team blessed with many creative players who look to take on their opponents, especially without Dwayne De Rosario. If the Fire can cut the supply line to Pajoy and force United to resort to trying to take them on it will work to the Men in Red’s advantage.
D.C.'s midfield - attacking through the middle
Similar to the Fire, United set up with two holding midfielders, Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa. In last week’s game against Columbus, both players were exposed by some neat interplay between the Columbus midfielders who quite simply passed the ball around Kitchen and Saragosa at times, especially in the first half.
Part of the reason for the exposure was because D.C.'s more advanced midfield trio failed to drop back quickly enough to support the holding midfielders when United lost possession. In the second half, this happened a lot less frequently, but it certainly is an area in which the Fire can try to take advantage. If the Fire can get midfielders forward in numbers, something they haven't been able to do as often in the last few games, then they could put some real pressure on the D.C. holding midfield core.
The return of Pardo - an experienced head for a big game
Since losing Pavel Pardo, the Fire have gone 3-3-0 in his six game absence. In the six games prior, the team won five and lost one. That stat alone gives you an indication as to how important Pavel is to the team.
His partnership with Logan Pause in the Fire engine room is one big reason for the Fire being a lot harder to break down this year. Pardo also reads the game as well as anyone in MLS, constantly positioning himself well to intercept a pass or pick up an advancing midfielder.
Having Pardo, a man with almost 150 caps for Mexico, will also be extremely important for the playoffs, especially because three of the five behind him have no postseason experience. Pardo's return gives the team an added boost ahead of the biggest game of the season to date.
Prediction: This game is going to be just as intense and nerve wracking as a playoff game but a sold out crowd at Toyota Park should give the Fire the advantage. 1-0 Fire with the goal coming from Chris Rolfe.
Coming within a Golden Goal of advancement to MLS Cup 2001, the Chicago Fire suffered untimely injuries to the likes of Chris Armas and Josh Wolff, falling in four of their final five regular season matches to limp into the club’s fifth consecutive postseason in 2002.
WATCH: 2002: MLS Cup Quarterfinals
Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution – MLS Cup quarterfinals (first to five points)
New England Revolution 2, Chicago Fire 0
Gillette Stadium, Foxbrough, Mass.
September 26, 2002
The regular season’s Eastern Conference champions would go ahead early in the 13th minute when Joey Franchino’s free kick from the left out picked out Taylor Twellman in the box who nodded past Zach Thornton for his first career MLS Cup playoff goal.
The Fire nearly equalized minutes later when Jesse Marsch’s skipping shot was turned away by Revs goalkeeper Adin Brown, marking the Men in Red’s only shot on goal in the match.
The halftime insertions of Hristo Stoitchkov and Dipsy Selolwane to aid Ante Razov and DaMarcus Beasley in attack came to little avail as New England iced the game on 60 minutes when Daniel Hernandez buried a long-distance blast, rebounding off of Zach Thornton’s punched clearance.
The result gave New England plenty of wind in its sails heading back to Chicago for Game 2.
Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 1
Cardinal Stadium in Naperville, Ill.
September 29, 2002
New England would take the early lead in Game 2 as well when Jesse Marsch’s header at midfield bounced into the path of Brian Kamler who calmly one-time a low effort past Zach Thornton in the 18th minute.
The Fire would equalize just before the half when Revs defender Jay Heaps collided with Ante Razov in the area, forcing referee Ricardo Valenzuela to point to the spot. On the ensuing spot kick, Razov tucked his left-footed take inside the right post to equalize before the break.
Into the 76th minute, Carlos Bocanegra fed Kelly Gray in midfield where the young Fire utility player strolled towards the box before playing a beautiful through ball that Razov poked past Adin Brown to give the Fire a 2-1 victory and tie the series at 3-3.
New England Revolution 2, Chicago Fire 0
Gillette Stadium, Foxbrough, Mass.
October 2, 2002
New England would prove too powerful in the rubber match back at Gillette Stadium.
For the second straight match, Brian Kamler would tally the first goal when he took a feed from Leo Cullen before beating Dema Kovalenko down the left wing and CJ Brown in the box to finish past Thornton in the 13th minute.
Despite outshooting the Revolution 17-11 on the night, the Fire couldn’t beat Adin Brown and would have their first round elimination confirmed when Daniel Hernandez slipped between DaMarcus Beasley and Jim Curtin before sending a cross to find Twellman in the box. The MLS newcomer half-volleyed his effort past Thornton for his second of the playoffs, giving the Revs their first ever postseason series victory on the way to a spot in the MLS Cup finals.
Campaigns, trash talk and the truth.
During the race for the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year award there has been a lot of chatter. Who ranks where and what is valued more from fresh-faced rookies - Goals? Assists? Saves? Defense?
Adapting to MLS can be a challenge. It’s a long season fraught with ups and downs, the speed of play is accelerated, often as a central defender you are up against a striker with class skills and experience to match.
For Chicago Fire defender Austin Berry it isn’t about the rankings or the hoopla, it’s about putting in the work needed to help the team.
Berry has made his way onto a Life cereal box.
While there has been PR to support the rookie defender who has started 27 matches for a 17-11-5 Fire team that has only allowed 40 goals in 2012.
The real truth of the matter has been Berry’s play. Through his efforts alone, Berry has cut through the clutter, letting his game speak for itself…
Austin #Berry4ROY: THE TRUTH
After two runs to the MLS Cup Final in three seasons, the high-flying Chicago Fire finished the 2001 MLS Regular Season similar to the previous year, winning the Central division and tying for the league’s best record (this time with Miami) only to be seeded second, losing on the tiebreaker to the Fusion.
Things might have gone differently if not for Ariel Graziani popping up once again to spoil the day in a match that would end up being the team’s last game of the 2001 season.
In that game played September 8 at Soldier Field, the Burn came back from a 2-0 deficit to earn a 2-2 draw with Graziani once again the culprit, scoring the 91st minute equalizer. Had the Fire been victorious in the match, the team would have eventually been awarded its first MLS Supporters Shield.
Alas, three days later everything changed with the September 11 terrorist attacks. With all eight playoff teams known at that point, MLS decided to cancel the remaining regular season games and move to the playoffs roughly nine days later, meaning the Fire would once again face Dallas in an opening round playoff series.
WATCH: 2001: MLS Cup Quarterfinals
#2 Chicago Fire vs. #3 Dallas Burn – MLS Cup quarterfinals (first to five points)
Chicago Fire 2, Dallas Burn 0 (Game 1)
Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
September 20, 2001
With the end of the September 8 game and memories of the devastating 1999 playoff defeat to Dallas fresh in their minds, it would be safe to say that the Fire held feelings of revenge in their hearts going up against their Brimstone Cup rivals.
The team would breakthrough just before halftime when Eric Wynalda’s free kick from the left picked out Carlos Bocanegra unmarked at the six, leaving the young Fire center back an easy header past Matt Jordon in the 40th minute.
Though the Fire held an 8-3 shots on goal advantage in the match, they weren’t able to put the Burn away until very late. Dallas would be awarded a direct free kick deep into stoppage time. Desperately looking for an equalizer, Jordan came all the way up the field to provide numbers but would regret it when Oscar Pareja’s take was hit straight into the wall before Peter Nowak intercepted a pass to start the counter attack.
The Fire captain fed a streaking Evan Whitfield in alone up the field and the current Fire color analyst outpaced Dallas defender Justin Evans to tuck the ball away and give the Fire a 2-0 victory in Game 1.
Chicago Fire 1, Dallas Burn 1 (OT) (Game 2)
The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas
September 23, 2001
Back home for Game 2, Dallas would take an early first half lead when Jason Kreis played a forward ball for Bobby Rhine at the top of the area. The Burn forward would find Chad Deering streaking through midfield and played a pinpoint pass into the box that the U.S. international one-timed past Zach Thornton in the 27th minute.
It looked as though Dallas would tie the series up at three points each the Fire had other ideas. In the 84th minute, Peter Nowak penetrated towards the middle of the field before feeding Dema Kovalenko into the box. The Ukrainian fired a quick effort that Matt Jordan did well to save but substitute striker Jamar Beasley was on the doorstep to equalize.
After 10 minutes of extra time, Beasley’s goal would stand to send the series back to Chicago with the Fire needing only a draw in Game 3 to advance.
Chicago Fire 2, Dallas Burn 0 (Game 3)
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
September 29, 2001
Back in Chicago for Game 3, there was little doubt the Fire would advance.
In the 17th minute, Peter Nowak’s corner from the left was headed down in the area by Evan Whitfield leaving Dema Kovalenko to scrap inside the six, eventually knocking home the go-ahead goal.
Needing only a tie, the Fire would go for the jugular in the second half when Nowak made one of his patented long runs through midfield. The Fire captain entered the box on the left and saw a bit of confusion when his last touch on the ball was a bit heavy, allowing for Chris Armas to bury the second goal in the 55th minute and send the Fire to its third MLS Cup semifinal in four years.
#2 Chicago Fire vs. #3 LA Galaxy – MLS Cup semifinals (first to five)
Chicago Fire 1, LA Galaxy 1 (OT) (Game 1)
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
October 10, 2001
The Fire had already received bitter disappointment from the Galaxy in late August when Alexi Lalas’ 94th minute “golden goal” knocked the team out at the semifinal stage.
The home side would take the lead in the 32nd minute when Peter Nowak gallivanted through midfield before sending DaMarcus Beasley down the left flank. The second-year Fire winger crossed to the back post where Eric Wynalda first-timed his effort past Kevin Hartman for the 1-0 lead.
The Galaxy would equalize just before halftime after Chris Armas was judged to have brought down Sasha Victorine at the top of the penalty area. Vaunted Galaxy striker Luis Hernandez saw his spot kick saved by Zach Thornton but buried the rebound to tie the score in the 44th minute.
The Fire would be dealt a blow in the 60th minute when Evan Whitfield was shown a straight red card for pulling down Cobi Jones who was in alone on goal. Despite playing a man down for the final 30 minutes of regulation and 10 more in overtime, the Fire escaped the match with a point in the 1-1 draw.
LA Galaxy 1, Chicago Fire 0 (OT) (Game 2)
Titan Stadium, Fullerton, Calif.
October 13, 2001
The Fire returned to the site where the team fell in U.S. Open Cup semifinals nearly two months before and already without Whitfield due to his one-match suspension, would be dealt another blow when Peter Nowak left the game at halftime with a hamstring strain, ending his participation in the remainder of the team’s playoff run.
In eerie similarity to the the August Open Cup match, the game would head to overtime and see another Galaxy winner come in the 94th minute when Peter Vagenas tallied off a Luis Hernandez feed, giving the Galaxy a 4-1 points advantage heading back to Chicago for Game 3.
LA Galaxy 2, Chicago Fire 1 (OT) (Game 3)
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
October 13, 2001
Returning home, the Fire would once again take the early lead at Soldier Field when Chris Armas fed DaMarcus Beasley through in the 30thminute.
Again though, similarities to a previous match between the two sides would reign supreme. This time when the Galaxy’s Danny Califf would tally the equalizer in the 44th minute (the same time as Luis Hernandez’s penalty put back in Game 1) that would eventually send the match to extra time.
In the overtime period, LA’s Mauricio Cienfuegos would tally his second overtime winner of the postseason, finishing off the Fire in the 98th minute and sending the Galaxy to their third MLS Cup appearance.
For the Fire, it would mark the team’s first home playoff loss in four seasons.
In this edition of Burning Questions we sat down with German World Cup veteran Arne Friedrich. This season, Arne has commanded the rock solid Fire defense in 22 matches, holding opponents to 40 goals. A native of Bad Oeynhausen, Germany, Arne has been capped 82 times for Germany, helping Die Mannschaft to matching third place finishes in the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups. Arne took the time to answer our Burning Questions about his newfound cooking skills, what music he prefers and how often he throws a handstand.
Always on the Inside: You often talk about how much you like Chicago. Is there something you haven’t yet experienced?
Arne Friedrich: I’ve never been to a Bulls game. That’s what I’ve missed so far. I’m hoping I can see a game when the new season starts. So for me, there is so much exciting stuff to do in Chicago and I just recommend people to come here and visit the town. Especially in Europe and German, nobody knows about Chicago that much. The city doesn’t have the same reputation as New York, and it’s fantastic.
AOTI: Is there anything that Chicagoans do differently?
AF: Not really; when I came here, I didn’t expect that the city would be so clean. That was the first thing I noticed compared to New York because they’re always rivals. The city is so clean and there are so many parks, we have trees, so much stuff going on during the summer. We have the beach and downtown. Everything you need.
AOTI: There is a video from the German Women’s National Team’s recent visit to Toyota Park in which you do a handstand. Do you often do handstands?
AF: This is very nice! It’s good posture. I don’t know why I did that. I guess it’s the first time. I don’t know, it was just a joke and everybody is watching me. Nice! It’s not bad. I didn’t know that I could do that.
AOTI: So do you do yoga?
AF: I did it in Germany. But I guess everyone can do that. It’s a one-time thing.
AOTI: What are you going to be for Halloween?
AF: It's my first Halloween. We don't celebrate it in Germany, especially not in Berlin where I used to live. I'm absolutely excited. I saw that so many people dress their yard up and it looks so funny with the pumpkins and all the stuff. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing all the stuff.
AOTI: Are you planning on dressing up?
AF: I’m not sure, it depends on what my teammates are going to do. We’re going to talk about that.
AOTI: The number 23 is a big deal in Chicago. Who is better, Michael Jordan at soccer or Arne Friedrich at basketball?
AF: We should come together and try to prove it because I don’t know how he plays soccer. My basketball skills are, I don’t know, maybe average. Definitely we should try it.
AOTI: You gave Austin Berry the nickname “Jerry Berry”. Have you given anyone else a nickname? Do you have any nicknames yourself?
AF: I don’t have any nicknames. It’s always funny, I just call people something different. It’s always funny but I don’t want to tell that.
AOTI: In my Google search, I found that the ladies often refer to you as a prince. Do you know where that originated?
AF: What? No! Not even once! I’ve never seen that. Really? Wow. I didn’t know that.
AOTI: Your favorite musical genres are Pop and R&B. Who are your top three musical artists?
AF: I like Eminem. Not his nature maybe but I like his music. There’s so much good stuff. I usually like R&B. I like the group Hurts. And T.I., Papa Trey. There’s so much nice stuff. Music is nice. It’s good that we have music.
AOTI: What is your favorite food and what is your favorite restaurant?
AF: My favorite food is definitely the Italian cuisine. I also started to cook a little bit for myself. I’m a very bad cook, I have to concede that. But I just try to practice every day. Normally, two or three times a week, I go to Vapiano on Clark Street.
AOTI: What’s the one thing you want to be good at cooking? Is there a specialty you want to have?
AF: Not really. My problem is that I don’t work with spices. And this is the problem, it always tastes very plain. It might be healthy but it doesn't taste good.
AOTI: You have a time machine. Which era would you like to visit?
AF: I would like to go in the past when Jesus lived.
Yesterday I detailed the heartbreak of the 1999 Western Conference semifinals against Dallas. Today, we look at the run to MLS Cup 2000…
With new commissioner Don Garber coming on board the previous fall, new rules were put in place for the 2000 season, namely 10 minutes of extra time instead of a shootout to decide tied games, the clock counting up (like the rest of the world) instead of down and perhaps hailing to his roots in the NFL, a switch to three divisions of four teams instead of two conferences of six.
Even though the Fire set club records for both points (57) and goals scored (67) in a season, the team still tied for first with Kansas City, but the Wizards owned a superior goal differential (by two goals), leaving the Fire the second seed heading into the postseason.
Because the 2000 playoff run ended up being the longest in club history (7 games) descriptions will be a tad bit shorter.
#2 Chicago Fire vs. #7 New England Revolution – MLS Cup quarterfinals (best of 3)
Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 1 (Game 1)
Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
September 15, 2000
It would take just four minutes for the Fire to respond though as Revs defender Mauricio Wright attempts a headed clearance of Peter Nowak’s free kick but instead hits it off the underside of the cross bar and into goal to equalize.
Fiery, second-year midfielder Dema Kovalenko would provide the winner in the 73rd, receiving a perfect chip from Hristo Stoitchkov in stride before beating a Revolution defender and finishing past Jeff Causey to give the Fire a 1-0 series lead.
New England Revolution 2, Chicago Fire 1 (Game 2)
Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
September 19, 2000
The Fire would surrender the first goal in Game 2 as well when Wolde Harris picked up a loose ball on the right before springing future Fire forward Eric Wynalda through before the then all-time U.S. goal scorer tucked the ball inside the right post for a 1-0 lead.
Dema Kovalenko would find the 83rd minute equalizer when defender Tenywa Bonseu played a 35-yard ball forward from the right sideline and over three player into the path of the Ukrainian midfielder to finish past Causey for the second straight match.
The tying goal would stand only three minutes when Jose Luis Morales’s free kick found Mauricio Wright who redeemed his own goal from Game 1 by heading the winner home inside the left post to send the series back to force Game 3 in Chicago.
Chicago Fire 6, New England Revolution 0 (Game 3)
Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
September 22, 2000
While Games 1 and 2 were tight, from nearly the first whistle Game 3 was a complete shellacking as the Fire took a 1-0 lead when Ante Razov cleanly finished DaMarcus Beasley’s cross in the fifth minute.
Hristo Stoitchkov would put his name on the scoresheet first in the 14th when Kovalenko crossed for the Bulgarian who finished from the left. Three minutes later, Stoitchkov let loose on a 50 yard run before slipping his effort through the legs of Causey.
Into first half stoppage time, Stoitchkov heads Peter Nowak through the middle of the field before the Polish midfielder rockets his effort into the back of the net.
With the game firmly in hand after halftime, the Fire would provide two more strikes as Razov finished Stoitchkov’s pass in the 65th before Same George cleaned up Razov’s rebound in the 75th. The final goal gave Fire the then most lopsided victory in club history as well as advanced the club back to the MLS Cup semifinals.
#2 Chicago Fire vs. #3 MetroStars – MLS Cup semifinals (best of 3)
Chicago Fire 3, MetroStars 0 (Game 1)
Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
September 26, 2000
Despite the Metros holding a 9-7 shots on goal advantage by game’s end, the Fire carried the momentum from the previous match over to Game 1.
WATCH: 2000 Eastern Conference Final and MLS Cup
The home side would go up 1-0 in the 21st when Dema Kovalenko’s shot from the right eludes the dive of Mike Petke and falls perfectly for Hristo Stoitchkov who taps in from close range.
In the 35th minute, Chris Armas steals the ball at midfield, dibbles down the center channel and plays Jesse Marsch into the right corner. The veteran midfielder then crosses to the middle of the box for Kovalenko, providing the second-year Fire player his third goal of the playoffs.
The team would close out the game late when Diego Gutierrez chips DaMarcus Beasley into space up the left. The rookie winger dribbles around Metros ‘keeper Paul Grafer before centering for Razov for an easy finish in the 84th minute to give the Fire a 3-0 win.
MetroStars 2, Chicago Fire 0 (Game 2)
Giants Stadium in The Meadowlands, NJ
September 30, 2012
The MetroStars would bounce back with a solid performance in Game 2, using Mark Chung’s individual effort in the 40th before Adolfo Valencia iced the match in the 84th to send the series back to Chicago for the MLS Cup decider a week later.
Chicago Fire 3, MetroStars 2 (Game 3)
Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
October 6, 2012
The Fire would get on the board early when Hristo Stoitchkov’s corner finds its way through traffic before finding C.J. Brown who touches it inside the left post, scoring his only MLS Cup playoff goal and just one of six in his 13-year FIRE career.
The Men in Red looked to be coasting to an easy victory in the 31st when Ante Razov laid off a ball for Stoitchkov on the left. The former European Player of the Year juked Mike Petke before lashing a beater past Mike Ammann to take a 2-0 lead. If his goal wasn’t spectacular enough, his fishing-pole celebration certainly was.
The advantage would be erased within five minutes though as Adolfo Valencia tallied his second and third goals of the series. The first would come just a minute after Stoitchkov’s strike, as the Colombian forward glanced in Petke’s cross from the right. Four minutes later midfielder Alex Comas’ shot was spilled by Zach Thornton and Valencia was there to clean up the rebound.
After a back and forth second half, the Fire would eventually find the winner in the 88th minute when Chris Armas sent a long ball up the middle of the field for a streaking Razov. The club’s all-time leading goal scorer beat the offside trap, took a few touched and finished to the right of Ammann to send the team to its second MLS Cup final in three seasons.
#1 Kansas City Wizards (1-0) #2 Chicago Fire – MLS Cup Final
Played October 15, 2000 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
After the two sides tied on points during MLS regular season, they would fittingly meet in that year’s MLS Cup final.
The Fire would go down early in the 11th minute when Chris Klein streaked up the right and crossed for Danish striker Miklos Molnar. On a bit of a broken play, Molnar’s first attempt deflected off of Jesse Marsch but then fell for him to tap in from close range.
The Fire would take charge of the rest of the match being thwarted time and time again by Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola. Going through a career renaissance that year, the veteran U.S. international would make a frustrating 10 saves in the match. I’ll save the trouble of describing each one by just saying you should watch the highlight video.
After a disappointing finish in 1999, the Fire put in a valiant effort in 2000, falling just one hurdle short of a second MLS Cup in three years of existence.
Six days later though, the team would get some redemption by hoisting its second Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with a 2-1 victory over Miami.
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)...
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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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.