It all began with a legend. On the 126th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 1997, an announcement was made. The new Major League Soccer team assigned to Chicago would be called the Chicago Fire. Its inaugural season would be in 1998.
Under original ownership group AEG and founding general manager Peter Wilt, The Fire signed notable players, marketing to its Polish population (2nd largest in the world to Warsaw), and scored big with Eastern European players. Poland's national team captain Peter Nowak was signed by MLS and allocated to Chicago on December 16, 1997. In addition to Nowak, Jerzy Podbrozny and Roman Kosecki were added to the Fire roster. Lubos Kubik from the Czech Republic made four international players for the team. Chicago native Frank Klopas, a former Chicago Sting player, also signed with the Fire.
Chicago also targeted its Spanish population with the signing of Jorge Campos, Diego Gutierrez and Chris Armas. Campos stayed for one season, but the other two quickly became long-time regulars and fan favorites.
With current U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bob Bradley at the helm, the Fire finished third overall during the regular season and took the Western Conference’s second seed heading into the postseason. Bradley’s men advanced in two matches past Colorado and then defeated top seeded LA Galaxy to advance to the MLS Cup Final, taking on the only league champion the league had ever known in two-time winners D.C. United.
Playing at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Sunday, October 25, the Fire went ahead in the 29th minute when Jerzy Podbrozny finished off a feed from Peter Nowak. Diego Gutierrez later redirected a shot by the Polish national team captain just before halftime. The two goals were all the club would need as the Fire became the first MLS expansion side to win the league championship – a feat that hasn’t been matched to this day following five more rounds of expansion.
Five days later, the club won the first of four domestic cup crowns, defeating the Columbus Crew 2-1 in extra time at Soldier Field. Jerzy Podprozny’s 45th minute penalty put the side ahead going into the half but the Crew’s Stern John equalized just after the break, pushing the match to extra time. It took only nine minutes of the additional period for the Fire to clinch its memorable “American Double” when Chicago soccer legend Frank Klopas pounded home the winner from close range in front of a jubilant Fire crowd.
The club had a chance at the double again in 2000 welcoming in the likes of Barcelona legend Hristo Stoitchkov as well as rookies DaMarcus Beasley and current U.S. Men’s National Team captain Carlos Bocanegra. The side finished atop the Central Division while losing out on the Supporters Shield (awarded to the team with the best regular season record) on a tie breaker with the Kansas City Wizards. Still, the Fire advanced past the New England Revolution with ease, drubbing the club’s continuous playoff foe 6-0 in the 2nd leg of the series. It took three matches in the league semifinal to dispatch the MetroStars, but the Fire advanced for an MLS Cup Final date with MLS regular season champion Kansas City.
In a match played on October 15 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Kansas City ran out to an early lead through Danish international Miklos Molnar’s 11th minute strike. The Fire responded by barraging Wizards keeper Tony Meola with 22 shots, forcing the U.S. international to make an MLS Cup Final record 10 saves. The better team on the day, the Fire’s high-powered offense featuring internationals Stoitchkov, Nowak, Razov, Beasley and Josh Wolff couldn’t get past Meola and the side fell in the final 1-0 in front of almost 40,000 fans in D.C.
Still with a chance to take silverware, the club returned to the Windy City for the newly renamed Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final at Soldier Field against fellow 1998 expansion side Miami Fusion. Like the ’98 final a goal just before halftime, this time a 44th minute strike from Stoitchkov, took the Fire into the break up 1-0. The side remained with the slim lead until Fusion defender Tyrone Marshall scored a late own goal in the 88th minute, taking the score to 2-0. A stoppage time goal from Brazilian attacker Welton served as only consolation for the Miami-based side as the Fire came out 2-1 winners, taking their second U.S. Open Cup title in three years.
The Fire were forced to move west to Cardinal Stadium in the Chicago suburb of Naperville for the 2002 and most of 2003 seasons. In the latter year, the Fire used the friendly confines of the North Central College campus to run up the league’s best regular season record, winning the MLS Supporters Shield title that barely eluded the side three years before under the direction of first year head coach Dave Sarachan.
Prior to the start of the MLS Cup playoffs that year, the club won its third Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title with a 1-0 win over MetroStars at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. Rookie Jamaican forward Damani Ralph scored the 68th minute winner giving the club its the third cup championship, the most among Major League Soccer teams.
In the MLS Cup playoffs, the Fire easily navigated past DC United over two legs and used a memorable “Golden Goal” winner from captain Chris Armas to once again defeat the New England Revolution in the one-off Eastern Conference championship match at Soldier Field, advancing to their third MLS Cup final in six seasons.
The 2003 final saw a few similarities with the previous two the club had played in. First, the Fire returned to Los Angeles, the area where the team took its first silverware in 1998, this time playing the final at the newly built Home Depot Center in Carson, CA. Second: the final matched the league’s top two clubs from the regular season, the Fire as Supporters Shield and Eastern Conference champions and the West’s top team, the San Jose Earthquakes.
San Jose ran out to a two goal lead into the half following a 5th minute strike from Ronnie Ekelund and a 38th minute goal from Landon Donovan. DaMarcus Beasley pulled one back just after the break but San Jose immediately responded with a goal from Richard Mulrooney to put things at 3-1.
A Chris Roner own goal pulled the Fire back to 3-2 and the team had a chance to equalize but Ante Razov’s penalty take was saved by Pat Onstad. Landon Donovan put the match away with his second goal in the 71th minute and San Jose took their second MLS Cup championship with a 4-2 victory.
The next season the club failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years of existence but did make a deep run to the U.S. Open Cup Final, where an extra time goal from Russian striker Igor Simutenkov kept the side from winning its fourth domestic cup championship.
In 2006, the club finally had a stadium to call their own when Toyota Park was completed. After playing a then MLS record nine consecutive matches on the road, the Fire opened their state-of-the art ground in Bridgeview, IL with a 3-3 draw against the New England Revolution as Nate Jaqua tallied the first goal in stadium history as part of his brace on the day and rookie Calen Carr scored his first career goal.
Later that year, the club found the fourth U.S. Open Cup title that eluded them just two years before when they defeated the LA Galaxy 3-1 behind goals from Jaqua, Andy Herron and Thiago at Toyota Park. Though only 9,000 were in attendance, the match is often hailed as one of the most memorable in Fire history.
The Fire were bolstered in July 2007 when Mexican superstar attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco joined the club, helping lead to a late season playoff push. Two months later, the team was purchased from AEG by Los Angeles-based Andell Holdings, led by Andrew Hauptman, with Andell being the second owners in club history. The Fire ran to the Eastern Conference finals where they fell 1-0 to the New England Revolution.
A year later the club added U.S. legend and native Chicagoan Brian McBride to the roster, uniting two rival internationals players under one banner. McBride and Blanco worked to help the Fire back to the Eastern Conference final in both 2008 and 2009 but came up short handed in both matches.
The 2010 season was disappointing my club standards as the team failed to make the playoffs for just the second time in 13 seasons. Despite a disappointing year, the club saw the last remaining “Fire Original” C.J. Brown reach 371 career all competitions appearances for the club, the third most all-time for an MLS player behind only Jaime Moreno (DC United) and Cobi Jones (LA Galaxy).
Both Brown and McBride announced their retirements effective at the close of the 2010 season, bringing to end two very different careers that had major impacts on American soccer.
July 16, 2010 also saw the club’s U16 Academy become the first MLS Academy side to win a USSFDA National Championship as they dispatched Cal Odyssey on penalties in the final. A month later, Academy product Victor Pineda became the club’s first-ever Home Grown player signing, rising all the way from the club’s Juniors program to the first team.
The Fire would have a difficult start to the 2011 season, dismissing head coach Carlos de los Cobos at the end of May and winning just two of the team's first 20 regular season matches. Under the leadership of interim head coach Frank Klopas, the team found success in U.S. Open Cup play, advancing to the final by the end of August while also beginning a resurgence in the league.
Playing in their MLS-record sixth U.S. Open Cup final on October 4, the Fire would drop a 2-0 decision at Seattle. The Open Cup run would help the team down the stretch, going 7-2-1 in their final 10 matches and after a dismal start to the league campaign, coming within three points of playoff qualification. Weeks after the season ended, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman named Frank Klopas the club's sixth head coach and first former player to take the title.
Bringing the club's second all-time leading goal scorer Chris Rolfe home as well as adding German World Cup and European Championship veteran Arne Friedrich to the squad, the Fire put to end their two-year postseason absence in 2012, going 17-11-6 in regular season play. The mark would tie the club record for most wins and points in a season in the post-shootout era (2000). The Fire would end the 2012 campaign with a disappointing 2-1 loss to eventual MLS Cup finalists Houston Dynamo in the 2012 Eastern Conference Knockout Match on October 31 at Toyota Park.