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.
Last week, the Fire played a team with a newish coach and it’s the same with week when the Men in Red travel to Philadelphia to face a Union team headed by interim coach John Hackworth. Philly have had some ups and downs but are a very difficult team to beat on their day. Here are a few tactical things to look out for in Sunday night's game:
Freddy Adu: Jekyll and Hyde
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on Philly
Freddy Adu has a long history of inconsistency. When he is on, he can be one of the best attacking players in MLS but far too often fans haven't seen the best of him. This season has also been a mixed one for Freddy but the past two games in particular, he has failed to show up. He did score a penalty in a 2-1 win over New England but in Montreal last week he was very isolated on the right wing.
Fullback Sheanon Williams failed to get forward to support Adu on the outside and this forced him to constantly play the ball into the middle when he would get it in a wide position. He even switched wings for a time but this didn't help. Under Hackworth, Philadelphia have become an attacking force but last week the wing play of Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp prevented their outside backs from getting forward.
The Fire should look to mimic that tactic, especially because it limits the support for young Fredua.
New Forward Taking On New Defender?
Last week, Fire Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald replaced Dominic Oduro at halftime and helped the team overturn a 1-0 deficit. MacDonald is getting back to match fitness and Sunday’s game could be a good opportunity for him to get his first start.
Oduro has struggled to find the net of late and his speed could be a game changer off the bench. If Philly are in need of a goal, Oduro is the perfect person to bring in because his “freaky fast” pace enhances the Fire's counter attacking ability ten-fold.
Whoever starts up top for the Fire Sunday could be facing a new center back paring for the Union, who may give a first start to former Fire player Bakary Soumare. The Mali international has been rehabbing a knee injury since returning to MLS from Germany side Karlsruher in June but he did play 90 minutes in a reserve game last week and could replace second-year defender Amobi Okugo at the heart of the Union defense.
New partnerships have the potential to be shaky and if Soumare does indeed start, I would look for the Fire to test out the new look back line as early and often as possible.
This, of course can also be achieved through set pieces. Philly have had a major problem this year in that department, giving up the most headed goals in the league. As we saw last week, the Fire and especially rookie-of-the-year candidate Austin Berry are a threat from corners and free kicks and this could be key to unlocking the Union.
Depth: If we need it, it’s there
With any team, having strong options off the bench is a massive bonus. It can help the coach to change his tactics but it also increases competition for the first team. After last month’s acquisitions, the Fire now have a bench that is not only stronger but has plenty of MLS experience.
Take last Saturday’s game for example: the Fire lineup card had names like Dan Gargan, Patrick Nyarko, Daniel Paladini, Alex and Sherjill MacDonald on the sub’s list. Soon enough we could be adding Cory Gibbs there.
The team's depth is going to be very important in the push to move as high up in the Conference standings as possible. If things aren't going well on Sunday, coach Klopas has tried and tested players that he can call on, something that could be the difference between one point and three.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 2, Philadelphia Union 0 behind goals from Marco Pappa and Sherjill MacDonald.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
The Fire play the Supporters Shield leaders San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical standpoint…
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on Quakes
With six more goals scored than any other team in the league this season and two in-form strikers, San Jose just can’t stop scoring. That being said, the team’s 44 goals eclipse the fact that they have given up 27. Of the teams currently in playoff positions, only New York and the Galaxy have given up more.
Last week’s loss to Vancouver exposed one of San Jose’s biggest weaknesses which also happens to be one of Fire’s greatest strengths: speed. Though Morrow had a good game on the attacking side, he was punished time after time by Dane Richards whose goal came directly from a Morrow error.
On the right hand side, San Jose will be without Beitashour for the first time all season which could pay dividends for the Men in Red. The pace of the Fire’s Ghanaian duo of Nyarko and Oduro could cause San Jose some major problems on the outside. Because the outside backs push up so much, there is plenty of room behind them for Oduro to run into. When he does go wide however, it requires the other attack-minded players Rolfe, Alex and Nyarko to get into the box in support.
Wondo and Gordon: Stay Tight
A major reason San Jose is sitting at the top of MLS this season are the goals from Wondolowski (17), Gordon (9) and Lenhart (6). The Quakes don’t set up their strikes the traditional way, with one on the shoulder off the last defender looking for flick-ons from the target man. Wondolowski and Gordon/Lenhart are constantly switching positions; dropping back into midfield and drifting wide. The interchanging of positions causes major problems for defenders and is one reason why you see Wondolowski score so many simple goals (think Fire vs. San Jose last season) - even though he is the obvious danger man, his movement makes him so difficult to pick up.
The other reason is that San Jose attack in such great numbers that it allows Wondo to go undetected. It sounds simple to say “stay with your man” or “keep your eye on the man and not the ball” but that’s exactly what the Fire need to do.
Using last week’s game as an example again, Jay DeMerit didn't let him out of his sight for almost the entire match to great effect. The Fire's defensive performances have been stellar this season we and should expect nothing less from Austin Berry and co on Saturday night.