The Chicago Fire started off the 2001 season with fresh faces, seasoned veterans and an abundance of talent to take it to the MLS Cup Final. Though that was not the fate of the 2001 team, the Fire’s campaign to capture their second title in their four year existence started off strong with the acquisitions of rookies Jim Curtin and Henry Ring, midfielder Sergi Daniv, forward Jamar Beasley (pictured right) and the U.S. National Team’s all-time leading scorer, Eric Wynalda.
The Fire opened the 2001 season with a tight April 7th draw at Columbus. The final minutes of the physical match brought two Fire player ejections along with one ejection for the Crew. The following week, the Fire earned its first win of the season in the 2-0 home opener against D.C. United.
The Fire endured a rash of injuries to key players and national team call-ups throughout the season. On April 28th, forward Josh Wolff suffered a season-ending stress fracture in his left foot in Tampa Bay, and two weeks later, Carlos Bocanegra (pictured left) joined him in the recovery room after spraining his left ankle against New England, forcing the defender to sit out for 12 consecutive games.
Fire Head Coach Bob Bradley utilized the depth of his roster and inserted defenders Andrew Lewis and rookie Jim Curtin (pictured below, right) into the lineup. When Lewis himself was attached by the injury plague, Curtin stepped up and helped anchor the defense next to veterans C.J. Brown and Diego Gutierrez. The young defender’s solid performance in the June 2nd face-off with D.C. helped the Fire mark its first win at RFK Stadium. Bradley also called upon A-League standouts Amos Magee (Minnesota Thunder) and David Hayes (Milwaukee Rampage) to help fill his depleted roster. Both players appeared in key matches for the “Men in Red.” Hayes’ first goal against the MetroStars on June 30th helped the Fire maintain sole possession of the first place in the Central Division, while Magee scored the “Golden Goal” against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on August 24th, helping the Fire advance to the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The defending U.S. Open Cup Champions started the hunt for a repeat strong, beating the San Diego Flash 3-0 in the 2nd round on June 27th. The 3rd round pitted the Fire against the Kansas City Wizards on July 11 and resulted in a 1-0 victory for Chicago with an extra time goal from Hristo Stoitchkov (pictured below, left). After bypassing Pittsburgh 3-0 in the quarterfinal, the Fire fell to the Galaxy in a heart-breaking 1-0 overtime loss, losing the opportunity to maintain the title from the previous season.
In spite of dropping the Open Cup title to Los Angeles, the Fire had an impressive run through June and July, amassing a seven game unbeaten streak. One match during this period was the 7-0 slaughter of Kansas City on July 4th, powered by multiple goals from Peter Nowak and Stoitchkov and one a piece from Jamar Beasley, Sergi Daniv, and Eric Wynalda. The major win was the largest margin of victory in Fire history and the largest shutout in MLS history. While the streak came to an end with the July 18th loss to Miami, the “Men in Red” would quickly rebound days later to defeat the Dallas Burn 2-1 in the team’s first overtime success in Chicago Fire history. At the close of the regular season, the Fire clinched the Central Division title with the 1-0 win over the MetroStars. Though down a man from an early red card issued to Brown, the Fire managed to overcome adversity and capitalize on a Dema Kovalenko goal in extra time. With the win, the Fire overtook the Miami Fusion for the first overall spot in MLS.
Throughout the trials of the year, the Fire had many individual achievements to laude. Fire captain Peter Nowak (pictured right) continued to influence his squad and saw one of his best seasons to date. Chicago’s 2001 record with Nowak in the lineup stood at a remarkable 13-3-2, while its record without him rested at 3-3-3. The former Polish National Team captain finished the season registering 22 points on 6 goals and 10 assists in his fourth season with Chicago.
Eric Wynalda (pictured left), the U.S. National Team’s all-time leading scorer, was crowned the team’s Scoring Champion after netting 10 goals and 5 assists for 25 points in 2001. His goal production equaled his career mark set in 1996 with San Jose. “Waldo” thrilled fans with three game-winning goals including a 99th minute overtime header in a 2-1 win against Dallas on July 21st, adding extra excitement to the Fire’s “Night of Champions,” which honored the 1981 NASL Soccer Bowl Champion Chicago Sting and the 1990-91 NPSL Champion Chicago Power.
World Cup legend Hristo Stoitchkov earned MLS Player of the Month honors in July after tallying five goals and two assists for 12 points on the month. The Bulgarian superstar averaged 5.37 points per game during that month. His right hamstring injury in the Open Cup semifinal loss to Los Angeles hampered the “Mad Bulgarian,” and his playoff performances were limited.
Between the pipes, goalkeeper Zach Thornton (pictured right) recorded a remarkable season with a career-high nine shutouts and a league-leading GAA of 1.08. He finished the season with a 16-6-5 record, and the four-time All-Star goalkeeper was the only player on the team to play every minute of 2001, logging 2,496 minutes.
Finally, making a name for himself was Jim Curtin. After being slotted into the starting line-up early on, the Villanova product quickly thwarted opposing forwards and turned heads in becoming a front-runner for Kellogg’s MLS Rookie of the Year. The Fire finished the season with a 15-3-3 record with him on the field in all competitions. He registered his first MLS point when he lofted a 40-yard pass to Peter Nowak on August 11th against Tampa Bay in the Fire’s 3-1 home win.
Throughout the tumultuous season, the Fire pressed forward and finished with an overall 16-6-5 record, posting a record of 11-1-2 in the months of June and July alone. The Fire heavily joined the ranks of the MLS West All-Stars, with an entire coaching staff (Bradley, Denis Hamlett, Darryl Shore, and Tom Soehn) and seven “Men in Red” (Armas, Brown, Kovalenko, Thornton, DaMarcus Beasley, Jesse Marsch, and Diego Gutierrez). Though falling to Los Angeles in the semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, the Chicago Fire ended the season with promise and the results needed to make a run in 2002.