Looking back on the ‘97 Expansion Draft

Shrewd moves, smart selection laid basis for the Fire’s double-winning campaign

When the protected lists come out roughly two hours after the scheduled time, as they did Monday, I’m always reminded that the fun opening act of welcoming an additional MLS team is never what it seems.

Beyond just a late list release, the MLS Expansion Draft (when it occurs) is the curtain raiser to a great deal of offseason MLS player “wheeling and dealing”, accentuated by the league’s two phases of the Re-Entry Draft (starting last year) along with January’s Super and Supplemental Drafts.

And as Wednesday’s draft comes and goes, some will begin to piece together what former Fire midfielder and current Montreal Impact head coach Jesse Marsch (right) is looking to do with his side in 2012. The thought that all 10 players Marsch picks will actually wear Montreal blue and white next season, is highly unlikely. If this exercise has taught us anything over the years, Wednesday is just the starting gun for what could be more than a few player moves around the league.

A little over 14 years ago the Chicago Fire were in the same position Montreal will find itself in on Wednesday, joining the Miami Fusion in the first MLS Expansion Draft on November 6, 1997. Looking back at the roster of players selected by both clubs, one might have sparring initial thoughts: 1) the strategies between the Fire and Fusion were patently different or 2) Bob Bradley and Peter Wilt were more shrewd in selection and future moves than their counterparts from Ft. Lauderdale.

Why?

Miami is one of only two Expansion teams in MLS history to have every player appear for them in their inaugural season (Philadelphia is the other), obviously putting a lot of stock in those players rather than seeing their trade value. In contrast, four players the Fire selected (including three of the first four, Kevin Hartman and Danny Pena from LA and Jason Farrell Columbus) never appeared in an official match for the team.

The other, Columbus’ A.J. Wood, served as the first player traded in Fire history when Bradley, who served as an assistant under Bruce Arena at DC United, brought the man overseeing Montreal’s  selections, Jesse Marsch in a trade with his former club on January 5, 1998. Marsch went on to make 259 competitive appearances for the Fire (fifth all-time), winning one MLS Cup, one MLS Supporters Shield and three U.S. Open Cup titles in the process.

Wilt and Bradley would next set their sights on dealing with the Galaxy pair of Hartman and Pena. The move to select both rising yoing players with the club’s first two expansion picks was a bold one, knowing neither of the born and bred Southern California products wanted to leave LA. Eventually three weeks after the Marsch swap, the Fire traded Hartman and Pena’s rights back to the Galaxy for Mexican international goalkeeper Jorge Campos and future club captain Chris Armas (pictured right).

While Campos didn’t exactly light up Soldier Field in 1998 (he only appeared in eight matches), his celebrity did bring the club early exposure among Chicago’s Mexican population. On the other hand, Armas would go on to carve out an incredible career during his time in Chicago, becoming a constant in the middle of the park for Bradley’s Fire and the then Arena-led U.S. Men’s National Team. Armas would appear in 272 competitive matches for the club (third all-time) and joins C.J. Brown and Zach Thornton as the only three Fire players to be a part of all six domestic titles.

The staff continued to build the inaugural 1998 roster after the deal, selecting Ritchie Kotschau in the College Draft before picking up Brown the next day in the Supplemental Draft. The Fire signed former Czech international Lubos Kubik on February 19 before returning to the Expansion Draft pool to bring local legend Frank Klopas back to the Windy City.

Having began his professional career with the Chicago Sting, Klopas, who had played his first two seasons in MLS with the Kansas City Wizards expressed his desire to join the Fire following the 1997 season. Kansas City would eventually trade the former U.S. international to Columbus for Pete Marino before the Fire swung back in with another of their Expansion Draft picks, Jason Farrell, who they’d taken off the Crew with their fourth selection back in November. The move was beneficial for both parties as the Fire brought one of Chicago’s soccer heroes home while the Crew kept Farrell at Ohio Stadium.

Klopas (right) of course would go on to score the club’s first two goals at Soldier Field in a 2-0 victory vs. Tampa Bay on April 4. He would also net a 99th minute Golden Goal to give the Fire a 2-1 victory ironically over Columbus in that year’s U.S. Open Cup Final, clinching the double for the club in its inaugural season.

“Kid Klopas” would play another season with the Fire before becoming an assistant coach in 2000. In 2008 he was named the club’s first Technical Director and of course, earlier this month became the team’s sixth head coach, becoming the first former Fire player to be named to the position.

Later on in the season, Brian Bates, the team’s 10th expansion selection, was traded to the Dallas Burn for another Chicago product, Tom Soehn. Having made only two appearances for the Fire, Bates would go on to appear in only five more MLS games during his time with the Burn and later D.C. In contrast, the veteran Soehn would play 60 matches for the Fire before retiring following the 2000 season.

While accentuating all the intricate moves that played out from the players selected in that first Expansion Draft its perhaps easy to overlook the fact that the team also selected players that made substantial contributions, most notably goalkeeper Zach Thornton, defender Francis Okaroh and midfielder Diego Gutierrez.

Thornton (right), who had only played six matches with the MetroStars over the league’s first two years would not only unseat Campos as the team’s starting goalkeeper, but became a fixture between the sticks for the better part of the club’s first decade. His 276 competitive appearances rank him second all-time behind only C.J. Brown and to this day, Thornton holds a majority of the club’s records at the position. Considered one of the top domestic goalkeepers at the time, Thornton was also named as an alternate for Arena’s 2002 U.S. World Cup squad.

Gutierrez would start the first of two stints in Chicago in 1998, going on to tally the second goal in that year’s 2-0 MLS Cup final victory over defending champions D.C. United. With 197 competitive appearances (seventh all-time) the Colombian-born midfielder would feature in the middle of the park alongside Armas, Marsch and current Fire captain Logan Pause on the way to three additional Open Cup titles.

While Okaroh doesn’t have the numbers that some of the others do, a number of players credit him with bringing additional stability and leadership along the Fire backline through the team’s first two seasons. While future Fire appearance leader C.J. Brown often mentioned that he modeled his game after the Nigerian defender.

With the club having the benefit of time to show why the 1997 Expansion Draft was such a building block towards the team’s initial success, it may be a shade unfair to rank it as the best ever. However, it is fair to say that Wilt and Bradley’s strategy through the exercise, balancing selection of trade bait and quality players, has served as a road-map for future expansion clubs.

Certainly a lot of the rules have changed since that first incarnation – we have Designated Players, Generation adidas and Homegrown’s along with more teams, but the essence of it’s the same. The teams that have done well in their MLS inception built a base through this very important dive in player transaction.

Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.