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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Over the summer, we presented 15 memorable games and goals from the club’s first 15 seasons. We also asked you the fans who the top 15 players in club history were.
To be clear, you won’t see numbers ranking the players. That’s because this isn’t a countdown but rather a series to honor 15 great players in Fire history.
In the first installment of the series last week, we named Jesse Marsch, Logan Pause and Chris Rolfe to the #Fire15. Today,
Today, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov and Chris Armas join them...
DaMarcus Beasley - The youngest player to ever appear for the Fire, DaMarcus Beasley began his very promising career as a 17-year-old in Chicago during the 2000 season.
The future U.S. international would go on to appear in 134 competitive matches, tallying 18 goals and 28 assists as he dazzled fans with his speedy and ability on the dribble.
Beasley would use his early time with the Fire to make appearances on the first of three U.S. World Cup teams in 2002 before springing to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven midway through the 2004 season.
Ante Razov – There is no doubt and little argument about forward Ante Razov’s inclusion on the #Fire15 list. One of the all-time leading goal scorers in MLS, Razov holds the distinction by a country mile for the Fire, tallying 95 across 196 competitive games from 1998-2004. Razov’s strike rate is more impressive when you consider the next player on the list is Chris Rolfe who has 49 goals at the moment.
Razov led the team in scoring in five of his seven seasons (playing only half a season in 2001) and tallied his career high of 25 competitive goals in 2000.
QUOTABLE: “I took pride in my craft. I wasn’t the fastest guy, I wasn’t the best dribbler but I knew how to shoot and get myself in position and do the best with what your talents are. I worked at that constantly and I was never harder on anyone than myself. We had such a good group [in those early years] that everyone demanded the best from everyone.” – Ante Razov on the All-In Podcast (September 10, 2012)
Chris Armas – Much like Razov, Armas is a necessity on this list. The second captain in club history, Armas is also one of the longest tenured Fire players of all-time, playing from 1998-2007. The former U.S. international joins C.J. Brown and Zach Thornton as the only three players in club history to be part of all six domestic titles.
The Ring of Fire honoree is one of a number of American players including Razov, Thornton and Jesse Marsch that built the core and found their career stride with the club’s early successes.
An honest, hard-working player, Armas racked up 13 goals in 272 competitive appearances. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Fire captain sits second all-time in assists with 53, behind only Peter Nowak at 60.
QUOTABLE: “I believed the little things added up to big things. I knew that on game day, I wasn’t going to be pushing magic buttons, I wasn’t that type of player. It sounds cliché but literally, working at technique, technique and technique. Being able to execute that in games and being able to work at the craft every day. That meant coming early and staying afterwards. I felt like I had some ability but it was followed up by hard work and the mentality, staying grounded.” – Chris Armas Blast from the Past Q&A (September 11, 2012)
Stay tuned to Chicago-Fire.com as we name the rest of the #Fire15 players in the month leading up to the club's Anniversary match on Wednesday, October 3 vs. Philadelphia (TICKETS) and 15th Anniversary Party to be held Monday, October 8 at the Chicago History Museum. (TICKETS).
Sega 200. No that isn't a new gaming console.
Seeing as Gonzalo Segares has only missed three regular season matches the past two seasons, it seems a good bet that the eight-year Fire veteran will record his 200th competitive appearance for the Men in Red when the side welcomes the Montreal Impact to Toyota Park Saturday night.
The Costa Rican international enters the match having racked up 172 regular season, 12 MLS Cup playoff, 12 U.S. Open Cup and three SuperLiga appearances since his rookie year of 2005.
Not a bad haul for a guy that saw 34 other names called before his in that year’s MLS SuperDraft.
Sega Plays All Parts in the 2011 Capital Comeback
“I’m very excited,” Segares told Chicago-Fire.com Friday afternoon. “In this day and age it’s definitely not an easy thing to play 200 games with the same team. It’s something I’m really proud of.”
If not for an injury riddled 2009 campaign and his short stint in Europe during the first half of 2010, Segares would have easily hit the mark earlier. It’s still worth noting the veteran really has no equal in terms of consistency at the position over the course of the club’s 15 seasons.
“I’m always thankful for the Fire to have given me the opportunity. Since 2005, it’s been a long road -- I have memories of very good moments and some tougher ones but it’s been a very positive experience.”
Of those moments, Segares pointed to his first game as a professional (a 2-1 win over Colorado on May 21, 2005), his first goal less than a month later (4-3 loss at D.C. United on June 15). A less fond memory is his stoppage time equalizer that was disallowed in that year’s Eastern Conference final at New England.
More recently, Segares counts playing in front of a sold-out Soldier Field against Manchester United last July and his role in providing two assists in the stunning 2-1 stoppage time “Capital Comeback” last season at D.C as happy memories.
Nothing beats the time he hoisted the 2006 U.S. Open Cup in front of the Fire faithful at Toyota Park.
“That was my first championship as a professional. You can’t replicate a memory like that, especially at home.”
The second longest tenured member of the current squad, Segares recently stated on the All-In Podcast that he wouldn’t mind ending his career as a member of the Fire.
“It’s place where I was given my first chance to become a professional. If I get the opportunity I would love to stay here.”
I’ll be honest, the 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup became sort of an afterthought following the Fire’s disappointing overtime exit to the Michigan Bucks back in May.
I believe FDR biographer Hugh Gallagher said it best when speaking about the former President’s attitude towards his paralysis, “Denial is a useful thing in its place.” With the team knocked out, it just became easier to take this route.
Of course as the summer went on and the tournament reached its final rounds, we were all faced with the scary prospect of seeing Seattle Sounders FC equal our club’s MLS-record four Open Cup titles. Come mid-July, the only thing that stood in their way was Sporting KC, who to some great resentment in Cascadia, outbid the three-time defending champions to host the final at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park.
With the news that his second-year stadium would host the final, Sporting CEO and serial tweeter Robb Heineman was understandably excited and encouraged the traveling support from Seattle to join in what would be a vibrant night at his newish stadium.
It is well known in MLS supporter’s circles that LiveSTRONG isn’t exactly as open in accommodating away fans in the same way that most other MLS stadia are (mainly with the use of flag poles). With that in mind, Sporting KC supporter @KarahM318 followed up on his tweet and Heineman even went a step further.
Flag poles for the final! Why not?
Certainly Heineman had already recognized the stature of the occasion when the bid money cleared his checking account but it was a great move on the club’s part to allow Sounders FC fans to support their team in a way they're used to in the Final.
Despite severe weather that delayed the start of the match, the audible and visual atmosphere created by both sides was fantastic. While we’re no fan of rave green in these parts, the contrasting flags (on poles) looked great.
(Photo Courtesy of Aaron Riner)
Of course in the end, Sporting thwarted Seattle’s bid to tie the Fire’s Open Cup record and for that, we’re all thankful.
Perhaps enthused by KC’s willingness to allow Seattle fans help create more atmosphere at the match, Section 8 Chicago Chairman Joel Biden tweeted to Heineman asking if the same courtesy would be afforded Fire supporters upon their visit there in September…
And this leads to the crux of the problem.
I have the utmost respect for Robb Heineman and what his group has accomplished in KC but if memory serves, it was he that was the biggest champion of his club’s new-found rivalry with the Fire last year. Seeing rivalries as organic things that come through supporters and a history of on-the-field battles, the Fire front office didn’t go along with the “plan”.
Given Heineman’s tweet, I’m left to wonder if he and Sporting have left the “rivalry” behind and if that’s the case, then why?
Does it have to do with the Fire’s domination since it “started”? (The Men in Red are 3-0-1 against Sporting KC since it “began” last year).
If not, I have to ask why the season series finale against your biggest rival, one that has certain MLS Cup playoff implications isn’t deemed, “special”? Certainly allowing the traveling support from Chicago to wave flags in your stadium will make your place that much better for the national television audience tuning in on NBC Sports Network…
When Sporting KC brought 400 people to watch the Men in Red take one of their aforementioned “rivalry” victories this past May, the Fire allowed those from the KC Cauldron to wave flags in support of their team throughout the 2-1 loss. It’s a practice that’s long been in place at Toyota Park, even going back to those days that Sporting were known as the Wizards (see photo below).
Maybe it's supporter-style gamesmanship, or perhaps PVC piping is just more dangerous in Kansas but the vast majority of MLS stadia allow this type of support from both sides of fans.
MLS has a league-wide list of in-stadium Supporters Exemptions that allow for the use of drums, horns and other musical instruments, banners and signs that meet what can be described as a “good taste” criteria and most importantly to this blog, flags on poles.
The caveat is that all use of the above items are “permitted at locations and times determined by the club or venue management.”
LiveSTRONG Sporting Park security has already proven capable of dealing with the waving flags in the stands, so really what is the issue?
Should MLS stadia that currently allow this type of support take a “quid pro quo” approach with fans whose home venues do not? Should there be a true, across the board set of standards for visiting supporters throughout the league’s 19 home venues?
In either case, I challenge Fire supporters to agitate for this right at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park when the team looks to sweep the season series there on Friday, September 28.
If you agree with this article, tweet it or even just your thoughts on the subject to @SportingKC and most importantly their CEO @RobbHeineman using hashtag #FearTheFlag. Or use the tweet button to the right and it'll do it all for you!
Flag poles or not, a contingent from Section 8 Chicago and Sector Latino will be heading to support the Fire at next month's all-important match at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park. Secure your bus and match ticket by clicking here.
#3 - Chicago Fire 3, LA Galaxy 1 - September 27, 2006 - Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final - Toyota Park, Bridgeview, IL
Vying for an MLS-record fourth U.S. Open Cup trophy, the Fire put their best foot forward against the LA Galaxy when Nate Jaqua scored in the opening minutes of the game (10’). Jaqua scored off of a diving header to knock in the ball which had been pinging around the box after a free kick. Six minutes later, Andy Herron would head in a crossed ball from Justin Mapp, pushing the Fire up 2-0. To make the match more interesting, LA’s Alan Gordon pulled one back in the 51st minute. Still, the Men in Red did not back down as the game wore on. Fire winger Tony Sanneh burned down the left side and passed across the box to Thiago, who chipped the ball into the goal in front of a celebratory Section 8 at Toyota Park.
#2 - Chicago Fire 2, Columbus Crew 1 (asdet) - October 30, 1998 - U.S. Open Cup Final - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
One week prior to the Fire’s first appearance in the US Open Cup final, they had won the MLS Cup in California. With an excited 18,615 fans greeting them at Soldier Field, the Fire had reached the final game of their inaugural season. Only a minute before the end of the first half, the Columbus Crew goalkeeper Juergen Sommer gave up a penalty. Fire striker Jerzy Podbrozny calmly buried the penalty kick. The Crew, however, leveled the match in the 53rd minute with a goal from Stern John. Tied at the end of regulation, the match headed into extra time. Finally, in the 99th minute, the Fire got their chance from a corner kick. The short kick dropped to Ante Razov, who headed it downward in front of goal. Frank Klopas was there to receive the pass and lifted the ball into the upper netting to give the Fire the “double” in their first season in Major League Soccer.
#1 - Chicago Fire 2, D.C. United 1 - October 25, 1998 - MLS Cup Final - Rose Bowl, California
After going 20-12 in their inaugural season (draws led to shootouts at the time), the Fire made their way to the MLS Cup Final against D.C. United, who had reigned as champions since 1996, the first two years of MLS’ existence. Goalkeeper Zach Thornton stepped up on the day, making 8 saves to keep the clean sheet. The first goal from the Fire was assisted by Peter Nowak, who drew out the goalkeeper before laying the ball to Jerzy Podbrozny to score. The second goal was also assisted by Nowak, who made a run along the edge of the box before shooting. Nowak’s shot deflected off of Diego Gutierrez, who was credited with the goal.
Stay tuned next week as we begin our #Fire15 Goals Countdown... Check out our previous Memorable Matches videos below:
#6 - Chicago Fire 2, Tampa Bay Mutiny 0 - April 4, 1998 - MLS Regular Season Match - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
In their first home match in Major League Soccer history, the Fire were taking on the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny at Soldier Field. With a hearty crowd of 36,444, the Fire would deliver results on this spring night. Frank Klopas got the first goal of the match in the 43rd minute, with an assist from Zak Ibsen. Klopas would score again in the 88th to secure a brace and lead the Fire to their first home victory. The total combination of the inaugural home game, a 2-0 win, and two goals from the Fire’s future coach would make this a match to be remembered.
#5 - Chicago Fire 1, New England Revolution 0 - November 14, 2003 - Eastern Conference Final - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
The Fire outshot rivals New England Revolution 20 to 7 in this physical Eastern Conference Final. With neither side scoring in regular time, the match went into extra time. It took until the 101st minute for the Fire to score, off the back of a run from substitute Justin Mapp toward the goal line. Mapp cut the ball back, passing to the center of the six-yard box. Damani Ralph then attempted a weak shot, but it surely would have been saved without captain Chris Armas there to finish it off. At the time, the golden goal rule applied, meaning that the game was complete and the Fire were Eastern Conference champions.
#4 - Chicago Fire 2, Miami Fusion 1 - October 21, 2000 - Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
In the 44th minute, Fire legend Ante Razov broke past the Miami Fusion defense on a breakaway. After drawing out the goalkeeper and dribbling past him to the side of the six-yard box, Razov centered the ball to Hristo Stoitchkov. Soitchkov easily slid the ball past one defender to score the first goal of the match. Later, Fire favorite DaMarcus Beasley streamed down the left wing, beating his defender. Beasley put a low cross into the dangerous area in front of goal and Fusion defender Tyrone Marshall mistakenly knocked the ball into the net for an own goal. While the Fusion would grab a goal through Welton once before the match was finished, the Fire had put in enough effort to win the match, counting them as US Open Cup champions for the second time.
Stay tuned later this week for the final three matches in our #Fire15 Countdown... Check out our previous countdown videos below:
In our third installment of the #Fire15 Memorable Matches countdown, we look back to the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal vs. New England, the 2003 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final at the MetroStars and the 2001 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal at LA Galaxy.
#9 - Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0 - November 7, 2009 - Eastern Conference Semifinals, Second Leg - Toyota Park, Bridgeview, IL
In the first leg of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Revolution defeated the Fire 2-1 at Gillette Stadium. In the 35th minute, Marco Pappa received the ball in the box, feinted past one defender, then laid the ball off to John Thorrington, who shot it low into the New England goal. The superb crowd of 21,528 roared in response to the aggregate equalizer. In the 82nd minute, Patrick Nyarko beat his marker near the corner flag and rushed parallel to the goal line toward the box. After drawing out the keeper, Nyarko nutmegged another defender and passed short to Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Blanco took a short step forward and lifted the ball up to the top right corner to push the Fire to the Eastern Conference Final.
#8 - Chicago Fire 1, MetroStars 0 - October 15, 2003 - US Open Cup Final - Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
The 2003 US Open Cup Final took place at Giants Stadium, where the field was lined with football markings. In the 68th minute, Evan Whitfield broke in from the right sideline through the end zone, centering the ball to Damani Ralph. The Jamaican forward needed only one touch to slide the ball around MetroStars goalkeeper Jonny Walker. The Fire would only need one goal to be rewarded with the US Open Cup for the third time.
#7 - Chicago Fire 2, LA Galaxy 1 (aet) - August 23, 2000 - US Open Cup Semifinal - Titan Stadium, Fullerton, California
This physical match resulted in a total of 12 yellow cards between both sides. Fire defender Carlos Bocanegra earned a red card in the 51st minute, putting the Fire down a man. LA Galaxy icon Cobi Jones would score the opening goal in the 79th minute. Down to ten men and trailing by a goal, it surely seemed that the Fire’s run in this US Open Cup was extinguished. However, the Men in Red rallied through Fire legend Ante Razov, scoring in the 85th minute. With the score level, the match went into added time and in the extra frame the Fire would lose captain Peter Nowak after Luis Hernandez purposely stepped on his face but referee Sergio Vega only produced a yellow card. Still without Nowak the Fire strung together 10 passes before Josh Wolff buried a rebound to send the side to its second U.S. Open Cup final in three seasons.
We all dream of winning Open Cups! That’s right, the Fire are back in the Open Cup, looking for a return to the final and a record-tying fifth championship as they enter the tournament’s third round tonight away to the PDL’s Michigan Bucks in Pontiac, Mich.
May 27, 2012 – Byhalia, Ohio
Farm houses adorn the road where silos stand as markers in the distance and a bus filled with soccer players and coaches from 12 countries chug along the two lane highway past Range’s Belly Acre and the Mt. Victory Drive through.