Fire legend Zach Thornton is one of many players that found themselves in Chicago. After two years of playing very little with the MetroStars, the young goalkeeper would go on to help the club to the 1998 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double as well as four more domestic titles, amassing 276 competitive appearances and owning nearly every goalkeepinig record in Fire history. I spoke with Zach recently on his time with the Fire and excitement to return for the 15th Anniversary Party on October 8.
Jeff Crandall: You became the second-to-last player from the 1998 Fire team to retire at the end of the 2011 season. What are you up to now?
Zach Thornton: I got home around December and saw a guy at a Baltimore Raven’s game that I had played with and I mentioned coaching and how I wouldn’t mind helping out at Loyola sometime. He was closer to the current coach than I am so he got the number to me. I helped out once I could in the spring and now I’m an assistant coach for the fall.
JC: You came to the Fire through the 1997 Expansion Draft after not playing much in the first two years of MLS with the MetroStars. How did you view your move to Chicago, knowing you would be competing with Jorge Campos?
ZT: Coming to Chicago I was a bit familiar because I knew Bob Bradley pretty well from regional teams and Olympic festivals and I was excited for a change.
As for Jorge he was like Michael Jordan, the best of Mexican soccer. He was a huge, huge name. At that point, he was still playing for the national team, and Pumas UNAM. Basically I would play when he was away on other duties and eventually I won the starting job towards the end of the season. Given his stature, I took a lot of pride in that.
JC: So many of the guys I’ve spoken to from the 1998 double-winning team talk about it being the best year of their career. How would you describe it?
ZT: I was really happy to not only be a part of a team but also be able to contribute on that team specifically. I really enjoyed everything, the coaches, the front office, and my teammates. I remember thinking this is what it’s supposed to feel like to be a part of something.
JC: Yourself, Chris Armas and C.J. Brown are the only three Fire players to be a part of all six of the club’s domestic titles. What does that mean to you?
ZT: That’s a nice stat but I look at it more like, Chicago is my team. I’m not from there but Chicago is my team. And of that core group of guys, I’m not going to list them all because I might miss someone, but that core group of guys was special. We got along off the field and we competed in training together. We pushed each other to make everyone better on game days.
It was a special group, it really was. I didn’t have anything like it after I left Chicago. I remember those years as being the most special.
JC: What are your greatest memories and biggest disappointments about your time with the Chicago Fire?
ZT: It’s obvious but it would be ’98 with the MLS Cup and then the Open Cups following that. The championships obviously stick out the most. As far as disappointments, I would probably give that to the MLS Cups we lost. I’m still not completely over those.
JC: Do either one of the MLS Cup defeats hurt more to think about?
ZT: No, I mean, they’re all different for different ways. Speaking of 2000, Kansas City scored early and as much as we came after them and played well, Tony Meola and their defense did well to keep us out of the net and they got the
1-0 victory. In 2003 we just weren’t good enough on the day. Both still sting.
JC: Who is the best player you played with at the Fire?
ZT: (Laughs) I’m probably going to see a lot of these guys in a couple weeks so I’ll give you a few. First, I’d say Chris Armas, the captain after Nowak. Of all the competitors you meet he’s the guy that you really want on your side. There’s Chris Rolfe, I can’t speak enough about him. Ante [Razov] is a friend of mine. I still talk to him a lot… He was a great player with an amazing left foot. Speaking of Nowak, the captain, I also played well with him. All those guys helped me when I was only about 24 years old and still finding my way, I was 24.
JC: Your play with the Fire helped propel you to time with the U.S. Men’s National Team, eventually being named as an alternate for the 2002 squad. Were you disappointed not to eventually be part of that team in Korea?
ZT: Of course you’re disappointed when you don’t make a World Cup roster. I worked very hard at that time. I had a connection with Brad Friedel. He helped me with my career mentally when I was training with him England in the offseason. But looking back, the U.S. Men’s National Team had two killer keepers at that time with Brad and Kasey [Keller]. Here in MLS, you had Tim Howard up and coming at that time and Meola playing very well. In the end, Bruce Arena took Brad, Kasey and Tony as the third to go along as a veteran presence to in the locker room.
Being left off that roster was disappointing because I felt I was playing well too. But I did the best I could and the only good thing about that situation is that when it came out, I was in the middle of the MLS season so I didn’t have much time to mope about it with games coming up.
JC: On what it means to be invited back to celebrate the 15th anniversary…
ZT: I’m looking forward to it. When I first got contacted about it I was very happy. I love the city of Chicago. The fans are, to me, the best fans in MLS. But the Chicago Fire, like I said, is my team. They were my first and my last so I feel as though my heart is with the Fire. I’m excited to see some old guys I haven’t seen in awhile and reminisce about the good old days. I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Earlier today, the Fire Anniversary Committee confirmed Zach Thornton as another attendee to the 15th Anniversary Party next Monday, October 8 at the Chicago History Museum. Get your tickets to schmooze with the likes of Zach, other Fire legends Peter Nowak, Chris Armas, Ante Razov, Lubos Kubik and many more by visiting FireAnniversary.com.