The MLS Cup playoffs are nearly upon us and even with Saturday’s disappointing result, you can feel the excitement for the club’s return to the postseason after a two-year absence. With their playoff qualification back on October 7, the team locked in its 12th postseason berth in 15 seasons, by far the best playoff qualification rate of all professional teams in Chicago in both their first 15 seasons of play and last 15 seasons.
With a strong postseason presence through 15 seasons, I wanted to take a year-by-year look back at the club’s postseason performances leading up to the beginning of the MLS Cup playoffs next Wednesday.
We'll begin where it all started: The magical run in 1998...
The Fire played their first two seasons in the Western Conference and aptly enough, the first saw them finish where the team could potentially finish this season (second place) behind only the league’s regular season champions LA.
#2 Chicago Fire vs. #3 Colorado Rapids Western Conference Semifinals (best of three)
GAME 1: Holding home-field advantage over Colorado, the Fire welcomed the Rapids to Soldier Field on October 1, 1998.
After forcing Colorado ‘keeper Marcus Hahnemann into five first half saves, the Fire would take advantage of Rapids defender Steve Trittschuh for the first time in the series when he pulled down Peter Nowak in the box, leaving refree Kevin Terry to whistle a penalty.
WATCH: The 1998 Playoff Run
As he’d done four out of four times during the regular season, defender Lubos Kubik blasted his effort to the top left corner to give the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute. Facing a loss in Game 1, the Rapids would equalize in the 79th when Adrian Paz’s cross from the right was deflected by C.J Brown and found Waldir with a diving header at the back post, forcing the game to a shootout.
In the decider, Tom Soehn and Frank Klopas converted to cancel out goals from Paul Bravo and Chris Henderson in the early rounds. Fire ‘keeper Zach Thornton then took over, making three consecutive stops on David Vaudreuil, Wolde Harris and Peter Vermes before Jesse Marsch chipped Hahneman to clinch the win and give the Fire a 1-0 series lead.
GAME 2: The Fire traveled to Mile High Stadium for Game 2 on October 5, knowing that a victory would push the team to the Western Conference final.
Once again, Peter Nowak would take advantage of Trittschuh, going on a stunning run through the Rapids midfield before being tripped up by the former U.S. international at the top of the box. For the second time in five days, Lubos Kubik would step up and convert his spot kick, this time placing a low effort to the left of Hahnemann in the 42nd minute.
Thornton would stand tall, making two second half saves to give the Fire a 1-0 victory and push the team to the conference finals.
#1 LA Galaxy vs. #2 Chicago Fire Western Conference Finals (best of three)
GAME 1: Five days after advancing, the Fire traveled to The Rose Bowl to take on top-seeded LA on October 10. The Galaxy would outshoot the Fire 11-5, with the Fire not registering a shot on goal until the 86th minute.
Luckily enough, the two that came with just four minutes to play would be all the visitors would need as Lubos Kubik’s free kick was stopped with a diving save from Kevin Hartman before Jesse Marsch was there on the doorstep to tally his second winner of the postseason, sending the Fire back to Chicago with a 1-0 lead.
GAME 2: The Fire welcomed the Galaxy to Soldier Field on October 16 and would once again take the first lead.
In the 31st minute, C.J. Brown sent a long ball over the top and into the stride of Ante Razov. The U.S. international sped into the box before seeing his close-range effort stopped by Hartman but Captain Clutch Peter Nowak saw the rebound fall to him near the penalty spot and he fired the effort past the Galaxy ‘keeper to give the Fire the lead.
It lasted just six minutes as Cobi Jones cross from the right found a wide open Danny Pena in the box. With acres of space, Pena was able to take two touches before hitting a low effort to the inside post, catching Thornton flat-footed and equalizing just before the half.
LA outshot the Fire on goal 2-0 in the second half but couldn’t convert, forcing the Men in Red to another shootout. Through the first three rounds, the Galaxy held a 1-0 edge as Welton tallied while Nowak, Razov and Soehn all failed to convert for the Fire.
As he did against Colorado in Game 1, Zach Thornton would come up huge at the end, making three consecutive stops on Martin Machon, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Greg Vanney while Marsch converted and Podbrozny hit the back of the net to push the team into MLS Cup in front of 32,744 at Soldier Field.
Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United – MLS Cup ’98 – The Rose Bowl; Pasadena, CA
After wrapping up their conference final series in two matches, the Fire would return to The Rose Bowl on nine days rest while opponents D.C. United came into the match having played just four days prior against the Columbus Crew in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.
Facing the only champions the young league had ever known, the Fire were outshot by United 9-6 in the first half but the advantage wasn’t reflected on the score board.
In the 29th minute, Nowak’s quick combination with Razov saw the Fire captain into the box on the left. Now in, the former Polish international simply slid the ball across to an open Jerzy Podbrozny who slotted past Tom Presthus to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.
It was Nowak again helping to pad the Fire’s lead just before halftime. This time, the future Ring of Fire inductee cut into the box from the left before unleashing a blast that took a deflection off the chest of Diego Gutierrez, sending Presthus to the right while the ball trickled in on the left.
As he had in so many previous playoff matches, Zach Thornton stood tall in the second half, making six saves and visibly frustrating United to give the Fire an unprecedented MLS Cup title in their expansion season.
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