The 2003 Chicago Fire team finished the season as MLS Eastern Conference Champions and will forever be known as the first MLS team to win both the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Supporters Shield in the same season. Despite an off-season that saw the departure of four of its best offensive weapons, the “Men in Red,” led by their new Head Coach Dave Sarachan (pictured right) and first-year captain Chris Armas, were able to blend together a squad of young talent with five “Fire Originals” and lead it to the brink of a historic “Treble” with a return to its original home at Soldier Field.
The Fire began its 2003 campaign undefeated in its first four games, including a 3-2 victory in Kansas City that featured the largest comeback in club history. Forward Damani Ralph (pictured below, left) would complete the comeback in K.C., notching the first of what would be an MLS rookie record 11 goals. The young Jamaican was not the only force up top, as the club’s all-time leading scorer Ante Razov found his stride early and paired with Ralph to form the most formidable forward combination in MLS. During a torrid stretch in the middle of the season, the duo broke the MLS record for consecutive games in which a pair of teammates both scored goals when they recorded tallies in four straight games. Razov, who would go on to score 14 goals and six assists (34 points), ended the campaign second in MLS in goals scored and third on the MLS Budweiser Scoring Chart while earning his fifth Fire Budweiser Scoring crown in six seasons.
There were other impressive performances in 2003, led by midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (pictured below, right), who would reward Coach Sarachan for his newfound freedom in the midfield with a career high in points (18) and goals (7). Midfielder Justin Mapp earned his first career start and netted his first MLS goal in the 4-0 win over Colorado on May 25th. Mapp tallied nine points and provided an abundance of speed down both flanks in his first full MLS season. The Fire’s assist leader, veteran midfielder Andy Williams, ended the year with a team-high seven helpers and two goals during his first year in Chicago. Midfielder Logan Pause stepped up for the Fire in his rookie year, replacing an injured Jesse Marsch during the first half of 2003, while third-year defender Jim Curtin would have a breakout year after playing nearly every minute of the season. The always dependable Zach Thornton ended the year with a League-best 15 wins while posting a solid 1.22 GAA and eight shutouts.
Midfielder Chris Armas (pictured below, left) also returned to duty after eleven months of rehabilitation after a torn ACL in his right knee and a staph infection put him on the sidelines for most of 2002. With the retirement of Peter Nowak, the 31-year-old Armas was the natural choice to become only the second captain in team history, and “Captain Chris” proved to be the heart and soul of the Fire. The 2003 Fire/Honda MVP’s gritty play during the season also earned him the 2003 ACE MLS Comeback Player of the Year Award.
There were plenty of other accolades to go around in 2003, led at the top by Sarachan, who was named MLS Coach of the Year. In a year where he broke through on the international scene, defender Carlos Bocanegra capped his career in Chicago by becoming the first player in League history to win back-to-back ADT Defender of the Year awards. Four “Men in Red”- Armas, Beasley, Bocanegra and Razov- would be named to the RadioShack MLS Best XI side, while the same quartet plus Thornton (pictured below, right) was named to the MLS All-Star team. Ralph would garner a pair of awards- the Gatorade MLS Rookie of the Year and Pepsi Goal of the Year for his spinning volley that broke the rookie scoring mark on August 16th at Columbus.
Before earning its sixth consecutive playoff berth, Chicago would be sure to finish off one tournament- the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup- in fine fashion. After running past the A-league’s Milwaukee Wave United and MLS sides Colorado and Los Angeles to reach the final, the Fire would square off in the championship against a familiar foe- Bob Bradley and his MetroStars. Chicago continued the success it had against its Eastern Conference rivals during the regular season and became the first team in the MLS era to win the Open Cup title on the road after defeating the MetroStars 1-0 on October 15th at Giants Stadium. Already the only MLS side to win the tournament twice, the Fire hoisted the Dewar trophy for the third time since its inception in 1998.
By finishing the regular season with a League-best 15-7-8 (53 points), Chicago was awarded with the MLS Supporters Shield for the first time in club history. A new format for the MLS Cup Playoffs was introduced in 2003, and the Fire made sure the new two-game, total-goals format in the Conference Semifinals was rendered obsolete after capturing a 2-0 victory over D.C. United in Leg One of the series. Another dominating 2-0 win over United in the return leg at Soldier Field set up a classic confrontation between the Fire and its playoff nemesis from 2002- the New England Revolution- in the one-game Eastern Conference Final. The home field advantage Chicago earned in the regular season would pay dividends, as the spirited Fire faithful at the renovated Soldier Field spurred its side on in a hard fought contest that would end in the 101st minute, as Armas tallied to send Chicago to its third MLS Cup in six seasons and capture the team’s first Eastern Conference title. However, the “Men in Red” would run into an inspired San Jose Earthquakes team in the cup, and the Western Conference champs would never trail in handing the Fire a 4-2 defeat at The Home Depot Center in Carson, CA.
The 2003 campaign proved to be a season of firsts: first MLS Supporters Shield, first Eastern Conference title, and finally the first year of the “Ring of Fire.” The unique Hall of Fame tribute looks to honor those members of the Chicago Fire who have exhibited exceptional service and contributed to the success and culture of the organization. The Fire welcomed storied midfielder Peter Nowak (pictured left) as the inaugural member of the Ring of Fire on June 28th at Cardinal Stadium. Nowak became the first international player in Fire history when was allocated to the team by MLS in December of 2007. The former Polish National Team captain became an instant leader for the Fire, battling at the core of the midfield to help the “Men in Red” capture a 1998 MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cup titles in 1998 and 2000.
As the Fire closed a successful 2003, the “Men in Red” hoped to use the momentum of the historical season to push for an exciting and successful 2004. Sarachan’s first year with the Fire set the tone for expectations to come, with captain Armas leading a team full of budding talent and steady experience.