Coming off a year in which the club missed the playoffs for just the second time in 13 seasons, the Chicago Fire retooled for 2011, with their Opening Day roster of 29 players featuring only 15 that finished the 2010 season in Chicago. Head coach Carlos de los Cobos returned for his second year in the Windy City but as early season results didn’t go the right way, the Mexican manager was dismissed on May 30, with Technical Director Frank Klopas taking over coaching duties on an interim basis.
With an expanded 34-match schedule to be played, things began well for the Fire at the start of the campaign, earning a valuable road point in a 1-1 draw at 2010 MLS Cup finalists FC Dallas on March 19, before returning home for a 3-2 victory over Sporting KC the following week. Because of the team’s 2010 finish, the club was made to qualify for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for just the second time, earning a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids in a play-in match in Peoria, IL on March 30.
Though March proved a strong start, the team would go winless through April and May. Embarking on a two-match road trip of Cascadia that saw the Fire drop a 2-1 result at Seattle and a 4-2 result in the opening of Portland’s JELD-WEN Field the team returned home three days later where they fell 2-1 to the LA Galaxy on April 17. The side drew their next four matches, vs. Houston (1-1), at Colorado (1-1), vs. Vancouver (0-0) and at Toronto (2-2) before falling 2-1 at Philadelphia on May 21.
The final week of May saw the Fire play a U.S. Open Cup qualifying and league double-dip with the San Jose Earthquakes. The Fire rallied from a 2-0 first half deficit to draw 2-2 before downing the Quakes 5-4 on penalty kicks on May 24. Returning to Toyota Park four days later, the hosts twice came back from deficits, eventually using Cory Gibbs 80th minute header to earn a point in another 2-2 draw with San Jose. With the Fire sitting 1-4-6 after 11 matches, the Fire parted ways with de los Cobos, naming Klopas interim head coach on May 30.
The former U.S. international took to the sidelines for the first time in a 0-0 draw with Seattle Sounders FC on June 4. The Chicago product took his side to another stadium opening, this time at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park, home of Sporting Kansas City where the two sides played to a second-straight scoreless deadlock.
In front of over 400 traveling Fire fans, the side snapped a club-record 11-match winless streak in a 1-0 victory at Columbus as midseason signing Cristian Nazarit finished a great individual effort from Orr Barouch in stoppage time. Klopas would go unbeaten in the league through June before taking the team on the road at month’s end to begin play in the U.S. Open Cup proper Round of 16. Going on the road to USL-Pro side Rochester Rhinos, Diego Chaves 37th minute strike proved the difference in the 1-0 victory as the Fire advanced to the tournament’s quarterfinals.
Two consecutive trips to Los Angeles the first two weeks of July saw Klopas extend his unbeaten run to seven matches with a 1-1 draw at Chivas USA on July 2 before a 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy week later handed the interim coach his first loss. As the team returned home for an Open Cup quarterfinal encounter with the New York Red Bulls on July 12, the club was forced to move kickoff of the match up by two-and-a-half hours after strong thunderstorms from the day before left Toyota Park, as well as over 800,000 Chicagoland residents without power the day of the match. The schedule change played little effect on the final result though as Dominic Oduro, Yamith Cuesta and a second half brace from Orr Barouch earned a 4-0 victory and a place in the tournament’s semifinal.
Despite their cup success, the Fire dropped a 1-0 result to expansion Portland, closing out the first half of the league campaign with a 2-6-12 record. Taking two weeks away from MLS in the second part of July the team returned to Soldier Field for the first time since 2005 to host legendary English giants Manchester United in the World Football Challenge on July 23. The home side got out to a dream start as Marco Pappa’s 40 yard free kick found Cory Gibbs who headed past United goalkeeper David de Gea to give the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 13th minute. The Men in Red would hold the advantage for 53 minutes before second half strikes from Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Nani saw the Fire eventually fall 3-1.Despite the loss, the hosts did themselves proud in front of a sellout crowd of 61,308, the highest attended international club match at the historic Chicago venue.
Following the game, the Fire welcomed former Mexican international midfielder Pavel Pardo before acquiring veteran MLS defender Dan Gargan from Toronto in exchange for Dasan Robinson. Pardo opened his Fire account in his club debut, scoring a 54th minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia on August 3. A 4-2 loss at Vancouver four days later would leave a blemish but the Fire would begin to turn their league season around with a 2-2 draw at New York on August 13, followed up by a dominant performance in a 1-1 tie vs. DC United on August 18. The two matches saw Oduro bag his team leading seventh goal of the season (vs. New York), while another midseason signing, Sebastian Grazzini snagged a goal in each of the draws.
Three days later the Men in Red would earn their third win of the season, downing Toronto 2-0 on August 21 behind another goal from Oduro and a late header from Gargan, in his first match against his former side. A home game on August 27 vs. defending MLS Cup champions Colorado saw a matching result as Oduro bagged his ninth goal of the year while former Rapids defender Cory Gibbs chipped in with an icing header in the 36th minute.
Two league victories in six days not only doubled the club’s win total but gave the side confidence heading into their U.S. Open Cup semifinal vs. the USL’s Richmond Kickers on August 30 at Toyota Park. Grazzini tallied a first half penalty kick before Oduro looped in a beautiful second half winner to push the Fire to a 2011 U.S. Open Cup final meeting at Seattle.
The Fire rode the streak into September with renewed playoff purpose but stumbled in a 2-0 loss at San Jose on September 10. The team rebounded with a dramatic 3-2 home victory over Chivas USA a week later, with Oduro’s 85th minute winner making him the first Fire player since Damani Ralph in 2004 to record double-digit goals in MLS play. The side finished out a span of six home matches in seven games on September 25 vs. New England, taking a matching 3-2 result from the previous week.
Embarking on a three-match, eight-day road trip culminating in the 2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final in Seattle, the Fire used a Marco Pappa hat trick to run past Real Salt Lake 3-0 on September 28. Playing another league match three days later at Houston, Klopas balanced his lineup in anticipation of the Open Cup final, with Dominic Oduro’s 43rd minute equalizer on his return to Robertson Stadium earning the side a valuable road point against the Dynamo.
Taking part in the club’s MLS-record sixth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final, the Fire would come against a Seattle side that had taken the Dewar Trophy in the two previous editions of the competition. In front of a partisan tournament-record crowd of 36,615, the Men in Red played under siege most of the match, holding things scoreless until the 78th minute when Fredy Montero buried a close-range rebound off a Sean Johnson save. Pushing forward in search of an equalizer, the visitors were caught out late as Osvaldo Alonso iced the match in the 96th minute.
Returning to league play, the Fire welcomed FC Dallas to Toyota Park on October 12, but took a devastating blow to their playoff hopes as they dropped a 2-1 result to their Brimstone Cup rivals. Things looked grim three days later against DC United at RFK Stadium as Gonzalo Segares conceded a 90th minute penalty kick which gave the hosts a 1-0 lead. The Costa Rican international spurred an unprecedented, late comeback, assisting on both Sebastian Grazzini and Diego Chaves’ stoppage time goals, giving the Fire a 2-1 victory while keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive heading into the final week of the season.
Needing a number of scenarios to go the team’s way, the Fire were given hope at midweek as Portland drew D.C. 1-1 at RFK Stadium, but were handed a death blow the next night as New York defeated Philadelphia 1-0 at Red Bull Arena to sew up the 10th and final MLS Cup playoff spot. Still with pride to play for against a regional rival at home vs. Columbus, rookie defender Jalil Anibaba’s first half brace put the hosts up 2-0 at the break. Having conceded two goals in six minutes in the second half, it was Chaves who provided the late game heroics for the second week in row, responding a minute later off an Oduro rebound to give the Fire a 3-2 season ending victory and push the team’s 2011 record to 9-9-16.
Despite missing the playoffs for just the third time in 14 seasons, 2011 provided a base for success in 2012. Having taken over a team that was 1-4-6 and near bottom of the Eastern Conference at the end of May, Klopas finished with at 8-5-10, finishing 7-2-1 in the final 10 matches of 2011. On November 3, 2011, the club removed the “interim” tag from his title, naming Klopas the Fire’s sixth head coach. With the move, the Chicago soccer icon became the first former Fire player to lead the side on a full-time basis.