The inaugural season for the Chicago Fire found the rookie team finishing second in the Western Conference and geared for the playoffs. By putting together an 11-game win-streak in the middle of the season, the Fire proved to all teams in Major League Soccer that it is not a team to be taken lightly. Coach Bob Bradley, who came over from two-time MLS Champion D.C. United, managed to create a successful product in the sports-oriented Chicago.
Before the season began for the Fire, MLS allocated key foreign players to the team, including the “Easter Bloc,” consisting of Polish members Peter Nowak, Roman Kosecki, Jerzy Podbrozny, and Czech defender Lubos Kubik (pictured left). Behind the leadership these four players provided, opponents realized playing the expansion Fire would never provide an easy victory. Lively World Cup Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos came over to Chicago from Los Angeles, which also brought over All-Star midfielder Chris Armas in one of the league’s biggest trades in history.
The inaugural season began with a March 21st match against the Miami Fusion. In the 2-0 victory, Roman Kosecki provided the first goal in Fire history with a second from Ritchie Kotschau. The Fire went on to win the home opener at Soldier Field before 36,444 fans, as hometown hero Frank Klopas provided two goals to blank Tampa Bay 2-0. In spite of the opening excitement, a lengthy losing streak plagued the Fire as it lost the next five games and tried to regain its identity.
As quickly as the losing streak hit, the Fire bounced back to win its next 11 games, including two wins over the Western-leading L.A. Galaxy. During the longest winning streak in the 1998 MLS season, several Fire players notched their first MLS goals. In the mid May 2-1 win over Tampa Bay, Jerzy Podbrozny scored his first MLS goal. The following week, defender C.J. Brown found the back of the net for his first in the 5-0 triumph over the Colorado Rapids. Another Fire defender, Lubos Kubik, added goal-scorer to his MLS resume in the 1-0 victory against the Dallas Burn on June 17th. Goalkeeper Zach Thornton continued to intimidate the opposing team with his 6’3” frame, which appeared to block the entire net. Captain Peter Nowak was also a threat to the opposition, tallying goals and adding assists in almost every game. As a result, the Polish midfielder was named “MLS Player of the Month” for May 1998. Perhaps the biggest victory came on May 20th, when the Fire defeated the L.A. Galaxy 3-1 at Soldier Field. After the win, Galaxy head coach Octavio Zambrano made sour remarks about the Fire’s defense-oriented style of play. Much to his dismay, however, the Fire kept its winning ways through June and the first two games in July.
Just when everyone thought the Fire could not be beaten, the team was plagued by a series of injuries. Nowak (pictured right) suffered a pulled hamstring, only to return two games later and suffer a strained left knee. This injury kept the Fire’s Honda Most Valuable Player out of the line-up for seven straight games. The Fire continued to face adversity, with hamstring strains to Kosecki and Podbrozny and a severely sprained ankle to defensive midfielder Ritchie Kotschau. With these leaders sidelined, the rest of the Fire roster was challenged to take charge of the ailing team.
As different players stepped up their level of play, a new hero could be found every night, either in super-sub and Pro-40 sensation Josh Wolff’s late-game heroics, or Campos’ spectacular goal-line saves, or even in iron man Armas shutting down the team’s best offensive players. As their record showed, the “Men in Red” rediscovered new ways to prevail.
The Fire had an excellent 1998 regular season, finishing with a 20-12 record, which placed 2nd in the Western Conference. If that surprised a lot of people, what happened in the playoffs was absolutely astonishing.
In the Western Conference semi-finals, Chicago downed the Colorado Rapids in two close games in the first round of the playoffs. Moving on to the Western Conference finals, Chicago went to L.A. to face the heavily favored Galaxy, owners of the league’s best regular season record. Chicago won a tight fixture on the road, as Jesse Marsch scored in the 87th minute off a rebound from a Lubos Kubik set piece. The Fire returned to Chicago for game four of the playoffs and hoped to capture a coveted spot in the MLS Cup Final. This hope became reality as the Fire defeated the Galaxy in a shoot-out in front of 33,000 frenzied fans to advance to the Cup.
The underdog Fire went into the Cup Final facing the only MLS champions the league has ever known, the two-time winners, D.C. United. Two first half Fire goals stunned United, and Chicago’s outstanding defense recorded the first clean sheet in Cup Final history to give the Fire the title in its inaugural season 2-0.
The MLS Cup victory would have been a great end to the season, but the Fire aimed for a spectacular finish. Six days later, the Fire met the Columbus Crew in the U.S. Open Cup Final. After the teams battled to a 1-1 draw in regulation, the Fire got a “Golden Goal” from Chicago’s own Frank Klopas, which helped down the Columbus Crew 2-1. With the thrilling win, the Chicago Fire “Did the Double” in its inaugural season.
In addition to an extraordinary team showing, the Chicago Fire received several individual honors and rewards. The MLS/AT&T “Best XI” called on Fire players Nowak, Thornton, Kubik, and Armas to join its ranks. The “Men in Red” selected to the “Best XI” were joined by Campos in the 1998 MLS All-Star Game. On the defensive end, Thornton was named Pepsi Goalkeeper of the Year and Kubik was designated as the BIC Tough Defender of the Year. On other fronts, Ante Razov was named Fire/Budweiser Scoring Champion for his finishing expertise and Bob Bradley was given the honor of ALL SPORT Coach of the Year.
The Chicago Fire made its MLS debut in style, collecting individual honors and league hardware. The Fire was doubly impressive and eager to defend its titles as MLS Cup Champions and U.S. Open Cup Champions heading into the next season.