After achieving successes most thought impossible in 2003 by winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Supporters Shield, the Chicago Fire saw its fortunes reversed during the course of the 2004 season. Injuries and call-ups to its key international players popped up at critical times around a midseason swoon for Head Coach Dave
Sarachan’s side, with the end result being the “Men in Red” missing out on the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in the club’s seven-year history.
Honoring the club’s rich history, 2004 would see the induction of a hometown hero into the illustrious Ring of Fire. Frank Klopas (pictured left), a dangerous forward who signed with the Fire in the 1998 inaugural season, joined 2003 inductee Peter Nowak in the Ring of Fire on June 5th at Soldier Field. Klopas made a name for himself with the Fire, playing 40 games with the “Men in Red” and tallying a total of 17 points from six goals and five assists over the course of the 1998 and 1999 seasons. Klopas’ “Golden Goal” in the U.S. Open Cup final win over Columbus remains as one of the most memorable moments in Chicago Fire history.
The regular season was a roller-coaster ride for the Fire, filled with streaks of brilliance and stretches of disappointment. The beginning of the campaign showed promise, as the defense held strong to give up only two goals in its first five contests. However, signs of a sputtering offense also reared their heads, as Chicago managed only four goals in those same five matches. Despite its scoring woes, the Fire would go 4-2-4 through its first ten matches and threatened to run away with its second straight Eastern Conference regular season crown. However, a franchise-record nine-game winless streak in MLS play would follow and bring the Fire down to the bottom of the table, forcing what amounted to a two-month fight for its postseason life.
The Fire would go 4-2-0 over its final six home contests, but its inability to win on the road would cost the squad, as Chicago earned only two of a possible 15 points away from Soldier Field after the All-Star break. The final match of the regular season at New England decided which of the two bitter rivals would earn the fourth and final spot in the East and which would stay home, with the Fire needing a win or tie to advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs. It would be the Revolution that would end the Fire’s season for the second time in three years, using a 2-1 victory to pull even with Chicago at 33 points in the standings and its 2-1-1 advantage in the season series to break the tie and finish the Fire’s year at a disappointing 8-13-9.
While the Fire’s regular season fell well short of expectations, the team did find itself competing well in a pair of competitions in which it has excelled in the past – the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The team’s season started in March in Trinidad, where the Fire fell behind by what was thought an insurmountable 2-5 margin in the Champions Cup quarterfinals to San Juan Jabloteh after the first leg. However, forward Dipsy Selolwane (pictured above, right) would come to the rescue in the return leg at Soldier Field, as the “super-sub” came on at the half to score two goals and assist Chris Armas on what proved to be the series-winner in the 90th minute, helping the Fire to a 6-5 aggregate goals win in the series and a berth in the tournament’s semifinals. The Fire met Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa in the “Final Four” of the Champions Cup, and a controversial first leg in San Jose, Costa Rica left Chicago not only in a 2-0 hole in the series entering the second leg, but without its captain and coach, as Armas and Sarachan were both booted for dubious red cards during the first half of the contest. The Fire put up a valiant fight in the return leg in Chicago, but a 2-1 victory put the “Men in Red” a goal short of tying the aggregate goals series, ending a hard-fought run in the tournament.
There was no shortage of drama for Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup either, as all four of the Fire’s contests were decided by one goal, with three of them stretching into overtime. Chicago started its run to the final on the road at Columbus, where it used two Damani Ralph goals – the second coming in the 16th minute of the first overtime – to defeat the Crew 2-1 in a fourth round contest. The Fire would then use the combination of Selolwane and midfielder Orlando Perez to fight past a pair of A-League foes to advance to its fourth Final in seven years. The duo would first hook up on the road against a tough Richmond Kickers side, as a Perez cross from the left flank would find the head of Selolwane midway through the second half to see Chicago through to a 1-0 victory on August 4th. The same scenario happened again three weeks later in the Fire’s return to Naperville in the Open Cup semifinals, as this time Selolwane bounced home a header in the 107th minute to set up another Cup final against the Kansas City Wizards.
The MLS Cup 2000 rematch would end all too familiarly for the Fire, as an Igor Simutenkov free kick in the fifth minute of overtime would give the Wizards a 1-0 victory at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO, dashing the Fire’s hopes of becoming the first team to repeat as tournament champions in more than 20 years.
The 2004 season was not a total loss for Chicago, as the young nucleus of the squad got its chance to shine as their roles were increased. With the departures of two-time defending MLS Defender of the Year Carlos Bocanegra and perennial starting goalkeeper Zach Thornton during the off season, thoughts were abound about whether or not the Fire could replace the two stars. However, the answer ended up being clear by the end of the 2004 season, as Thornton’s longtime back-up Henry Ring (pictured above, left) emerged from a dogged preseason fight for the starting position with the #1 job, while defender Jim Curtin (pictured right) stood tall – both literally and figuratively – to lead the Fire’s defensive corps. Both would earn their rightful place in the MLS Eastern Conference All-Star team’s starting XI at the midseason showcase in Washington, D.C. in July before earning team honors at the finish of the season. In addition to receiving Honda MLS Player of the Week honors in week 5, Ring would be named the 2004 Fire/Honda Most Valuable Player after finishing the season in the MLS top three in saves, save percentage and shutouts. For his steady play, Curtin earned the Fire Defender of the Year award after playing every minute of every MLS regular season and Cup competition game during the season.
While Curtin and Ring enjoyed what could be considered “breakout seasons,” another member of the squad, forward Damani Ralph (pictured left), was no surprise after earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2003. However, even with the added attention he earned from opposing defenses, Ralph would easily outdistance the rest of his teammates to earn the 2004 Fire/Budweiser Scoring Championship after scoring 11 goals and three assists. Three of those goals alone came in the June 5th victory over D.C. United, the third hat trick in club history. Ralph would also be the last double-digit goal scorer for the Chicago Fire.
Even more youngsters were given the chance to prove what they were made of during the season, with Justin Mapp (pictured below, right) and Nate Jaqua leading the way for the “new breed” of the Fire. With the midseason departure of DaMarcus Beasley to PSV Eindhoven of Holland, Mapp was given the opportunity to play his natural left-sided position, where the teenaged speedster became one of the toughest players to contain in MLS. Only injury would slow Mapp down towards the end of the season, which ended in September during the midst of a three-game scoring streak. While Mapp got to move back to his normal spot on the field, Jaqua was shuffled from his usual target spot up top to the right flank. But the unselfish, second-year player from the University of Portland made the most of his increased playing time out wide and became a solid contributor on both sides of the ball after making the adjustment. Despite playing wide, Jaqua would still get his chance to finish and would end the season third in the club in scoring with four goals and four assists.
While youth was served in 2004, there was still plenty of space for the “elder statesmen” of the Fire, led by midfielders Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, Andy Williams and defender C.J. Brown (pictured below, left), to make their mark on the season. While the other three veterans would suffer from injuries at some point during the season, Williams maintained his health and was depended on to spearhead the offensive attack. The veteran playmaker did not disappoint, as he matched his career-high mark of 17 points and led the squad in assists for the second straight season, this time earning nine helpers. Armas, the Fire’s second-year captain, would begin the year in productive fashion, with his assist total on pace for a career-best. However, knee problems would arrive midway through the season, forcing him into limited playing time towards the important final third of the campaign. The timing was unfortunate for the Fire; just as Armas was forced off the field, his longtime partner in the middle of the park, Marsch, was returning from off-season ankle surgery. After missing the Fire’s first 19 games, Marsch would reclaim his starting spot in August and continued to display the unrelenting passion and work rate he has become known for throughout his nine MLS seasons. Another player who stepped up was Brown, another “Fire Original” who donned the captain’s armband when Armas was unable to. After struggling with nagging injuries during the first half of the season, Brown returned to his status as one of the toughest defenders in MLS, earning a starting nod from Sarachan in each of the Fire’s final 20 regular season and Open Cup contests.
Towards the end of the difficult campaign, some offensive help arrived in the form of forward Andy Herron. The Costa Rican international played in only four matches, but he made his impact felt on the field and in record books by scoring four goals in those contests, helping him to become the only player on the Fire to earn Honda Player of the Month honors during the course of the season for his work in October. The 26-year-old striker became only the second player in League history to score a pair of tallies in each of his first two starts, while those performances also made him one of only six players to earn back-to-back Honda MLS Player of the Week Awards, and only the second player in Fire history to accomplish the feat.