A new era began in 2008 as Frank Klopas joined the club as the Fire’s first-ever technical director and long time assistant coach Denis Hamlett assumed control of the club
as the fourth head coach in team history. Shortly after his appointment to the position, Hamlett chose to bolster his assistant coaching staff with the additions of Mike Jeffries and former Fire captain Chris Armas who joined the club’s long-time goalkeeping coach Daryl Shore on Hamlett’s staff.
This new era also ushered in a new look for the Fire. Following the lead of international teams and their relationships with corporate sponsors, the Fire made a major move to bolster its profile as a club by reaching an agreement with Best Buy. In May of 2008, the international electronics company agreed to pay between $2.5 million and $4 million per season for the rights to display its logo across the chest of the Fire jerseys. With a new look and a renewed drive, the Fire headed into the 2008 season with great expectations.
In 2008, the Fire celebrated their 10 year anniversary and began preseason with the intention of once again capturing the domestic double; winning the 2008 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and the 2008 MLS Cup. The Fire season started out better than any other previous in franchise history as the squad posted a record of 6-3-1 through the first 10 games, allowing just eight goals. In the April 3rd home opener, the Men in Red used two goals from Polish import Tomasz Frankowski to route the New England Revolution in a 4-0 win. A month later, the Fire again decidedly defeated the New England side, beating their post-season rivals 3-0 in a road victory. A strong early season performance continued into the month of May, supplemented by stellar play by Cuauhtémoc Blanco (pictured left). In the 2-0 win over DC on May 8th and the 5-1 win over New York on May 25th, Blanco garnered several league honors including the Sierra Mist Goal of the Week, MLS Player of the Week, and the Honda MLS Player of the Month.
Through the middle of the season the Fire went on a roller coaster ride, posting a record of 3-3-4 through their next 10 matches, again allowing just eight goals through that stretch. Heading into July, the Fire faced the Cleveland City Stars of the USL Second Division in the third round of the 2008 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The Fire beat Cleveland City 4-1 to advance to the quarterfinals but later fell to DC United 2-1 in overtime. Two key mid season wins against Chivas USA on August 2nd and the Revolution on August 9th also brought career firsts for Patrick Nyarko (pictured right) and Wilman Conde, with a first start and first MLS goal for Nyarko on the 2nd and a first career goal for Conde on the 9th.
In June, rumors circulated that U.S. Soccer star Brian McBride (pictured below, left) would be returning to MLS and was interested in playing for his hometown team Chicago. While Toronto had the first right of refusal on McBride’s rights, the Fire announced a trade to acquire the World Cup veteran’s rights, sending forward Chad Barrett up to Canada. McBride officially joined the team on August 16th after serving as captain of the U.S. Men’s Olympic team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although McBride’s August 16th Fire debut ended in a 1-0 loss against DC and marked the end of a seven-game undefeated streak, the U.S. soccer veteran made an immediate impact, recording five goals and two assists in just 11 games played through the end of the regular season.
As the Fire entered the final games of the campaign, the team picked up valuable points in a 3-1 victory over the LA Galaxy on September 25th and used a first half hat trick from Chris Rolfe (pictured below, right) in a 5-2 route vs. the New York Red Bulls to close out the 2008 regular season. Rolfe’s performance throughout the season earned him both Sierra Mist Goal of the Week and Honda MLS Player of the week honors. Seeded third in the Eastern Conference, Chicago would line up against the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series. Since the 2005 season, the Revolution had ended the Fire’s MLS Cup run and with the 2007 Eastern Conference final defeat still fresh in the minds of the players, the team would not let it happen again.
In the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal on October 30th, the Fire traveled to Foxborough, Mass. and played the Revs to a 0-0 draw. The Fire returned home to TOYOTA PARK for the second leg and earned an emphatic 3-0 victory as Chris Rolfe, Wilman Conde and Gonzalo Segares’ strikes sent the Fire back to a conference final for the seventh time in 11 seasons.
Unfortunately, the Fire fell 2-1 to Columbus in the Eastern Conference Final at Crew Stadium on November 13th. McBride, who spent his first eight seasons in MLS with the Crew, put the Fire ahead on a 29th minute header off a cross from Justin Mapp. Columbus took control of the match in the second half as goals by Chad Marshall (49’) and Eddie Gaven (55’) just six minutes from each other gave the Crew a lead they would not give up. McBride had a chance to tie the game in the 73rd minute but Columbus' William Hesmer saved the shot and the Fire again saw their season end in Conference Final play. The Fire ended the 2008 season with a 13-10-7 record overall.
Four Fire players earned recognition for their performance through 2008. Fire Designated Player Cuauhtémoc Blanco (pictured left) continued his success in Chicago, recording seven goals and 11 assists through his 27 games played. In July, Blanco was named to the MLS All-Star roster as a member of the Starting XI. The Mexican international put on a show, tallying a goal and an assist in 45 min. of play to earn the honor of Sierra Mist All-Star match MVP as the MLS All-Stars downed West Ham United 3-2 at BMO Field in Toronto. Blanco was also named to the MLS Best XI squad, announced at the 2008 MLS Awards Gala. Joining him in that honor were Jon Busch (pictured below, right), who also earned Panasonic Goalkeeper of the Year for this 10 shutouts and 1.11 goals against average, and Bakary Soumare for his defensive efforts. Busch was also named the Fire/Honda Most Valuable Player for 2008.
Midfielder Diego Gutierrez (pictured below, left) ended a 12-year career in MLS in November as he announced early in the season that 2008 would be his last. The MLS Original appeared in 157 regular season games for the Fire through his seven years with the team and earned the Fire Humanitarian of the Year award and the Commissioner’s award in 2008 for his contributions to the sport of soccer in the United States.
In January, Fire Original Chris Armas also announced that he would not return for a second season as an assistant coach with the Fire and was replaced by assistant coach Mike Matkovich who will serve as an assistant coach and Chicago Fire Academy Advisory in 2008.