The Chicago Fire Soccer Club began 2009 with high hopes after a successful run deep into the 2008 MLS Cup Playoffs with the stated goal of winning the season ending tournament. With a strong backline and a full season with Brian McBride, 2009 looked like the year where the Fire could repeat the successes of the inaugural 1998 team.
The “Men in Red” opened the season on March 21st with a 3-1 win against FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park. Though playing a man down, the Fire continued to impress, beating New York 1-0 in the 2009 home opener on April 5th. In an April international exhibition match, the Fire played Club America in celebration of Fire midfielder Cuauhtémoc Blanco (pictured right), a former Club America veteran. At the time, the game marked the largest attended international friendly in TOYOTA PARK history as 17,342 fans witnessed a Club America’s 2-1 victory.
The month of April also brought honors for Fire midfielder Brian McBride (pictured left) as he earned the title of MLS Player of the Month and MLS Goal of the Week in week 4 of league play. A strong opening campaign led the Fire to an 11-match unbeaten streak, going 5-0-6 before eventually falling to FC Dallas on May 31st. The loss began a three-game losing skid that led the Fire to the midpoint of the 2009 season, where they took time off from their league commitments to participate in the SuperLiga and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournaments.
Despite being bounced by USL Second Division side Wilmington Hammerheads in the third round of the Open Cup, the Fire made an impressive run in SuperLiga with the club winning its first two group games (1-0 vs. San Luis, 1-0 vs. Chivas USA) before falling 2-1 to UANL Tigres in final group match. The Fire advanced to the semi-final where goals from McBride and Blanco gave the side a 2-1 victory and rematch in the final vs. Tigres. In the championship match played in front of 20,000 supporters at TOYOTA PARK on August 5, the Fire used an early Patrick Nyarko goal to earn a 1-1 draw but fell 4-3 on penalties as Tigres took the title.
Following an exciting SuperLiga appearance, the Fire wavered with results midseason, struggling to maintain a consistent winning pattern. In spite of the ups and downs, the “Men in Red” put on an electrifying performance against Colorado in an August 23rd come-from-behind 3-2 victory. The match saw a late rush of goals from Blanco, Mike Banner, and Dasan Robinson. As the Fire headed into the final stretch of the season, the team found itself in the middle of a tight race for MLS Cup Playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately the club only managed a record of 3-4-4 heading into the final game of the season, needing a win to secure a playoff spot. On October 22nd, TOYOTA PARK was filled almost to capacity as the Fire beat Chivas USA in a 1-0 nail biter. This victory set the stage for what has become a postseason fixture for the Fire since 2005, a playoff series with the New England Revolution.
In the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal, the side traveled to Foxborough, Mass., falling 2-1 to their annual postseason foes. The Fire returned to TOYOTA PARK and was greeted by 21,528 passionate fans, (at the time the largest crowd in the stadium’s history) as they needed a two-goal victory to advance. The club rewarded their fan’s dedication using goals from John Thorrington and Cuauhtémoc Blanco to earn a resounding 2-0 win while defeating the Revs in the postseason for the first time since 2005.
The Fire looked to use their newly gained momentum to power through the one-match Eastern Conference Final and book a place in the MLS Cup final in Seattle, WA. Mid-season upstarts Real Salt Lake stood in the team’s way of a return to MLS Cup for the first time since 2003 after defeating defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew over two legs. That result gave the Fire an unexpected home-field advantage in the Conference Championship. TOYOTA PARK was packed to capacity with a new stadium record of 21,723 fans who were witness to 120 minutes of exhilarating but scoreless play and for the second time in 2009, the Fire found themselves in a penalty kick shootout. After the first round of penalties ended 4-4, the Fire saw their next two sudden death kicks saved and eventually fell 5-4, to lose their second final of the year to the tie-breaker. The result brought a roller coaster 2009 to an end.
Chicago Fire defensive standout and fan favorite Wilman Conde (pictured above, right) received deserved recognition in 2009 by being named to Major League Soccer’s Best XI and an All-Star, along with teammate Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Several “Fire Originals” also received their dues. Former Captain Chris Armas (pictured above) was inducted into the Ring of Fire on October 22nd recognizing him for his outstanding career, and the lone remaining player from 1998, C.J. Brown (pictured right), won the Section 8 Player of the Year Award. The Chicago Fire also won the 2009 Fair Play Award, awarded to the team with the lowest amount of cautions and ejections.
In December, the Fire parted with long time assistant and head coach Denis Hamlett (pictured below) after 12 years with the organization.
The 2009 campaign will be remembered for being one of the most exciting seasons in team history, as significant departures and arrivals, record playoff attendances, advancement in multiple tournaments, and growth as a club and as an organization gave fans of the Fire a lot to look forward to heading into 2010 and beyond.