CJ Brown is the epitome of "Fire Original". The veteran backliner has been with the club since the team's inaugural season in 1998, playing in 342 matches and logging 31,794 minutes across all competitions, Brown will set a new record for longevity when the Fire kickoff 2010 this Saturday at Red Bull New York.
Opening up his 13th consecutive season with the Fire, the former U.S. international will officially surpass former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones who spent 12 straight years with the club, before retiring to become an assistant coach with the team.
In that time, Brown has gone from a 22-year-old rookie, to a 34-year-old vet, playing with the likes of Nowak, Wynalda, Stoitchkov, Razov, Beasley, Bocanegra and Blanco. He's played in three different stadiums, four if you count the new Soldier Field, winning five major trophies with the club, with Carlos de los Cobos representing the fifth head coach he's played for.
So what has changed, C.J.?
"A lot," said a reflective Brown. "From '98 to now, things have been up and down. It's very difficult to match the way we started that year, we obviously have been unable to repeat that feat, but that first team was very special."
Led by current U.S. national team head coach Bob Bradley, the '98 squad featured the aforementioned Nowak and Razov, along with proven internationals in strikers Roman Kosecki, Jerzy Podbrozny (both from Poland), Frank Klopas (USA) and defender Lubos Kubik (Czech Republic). Bolstered by up-and-coming American internationals Chris Armas, Josh Wolff and Zach Thornton, the '98 team remains the only expansion side in MLS history to win the league's championship in its debut season.
And while MLS Cup has eluded the club over the last 12 seasons, Brown has been a part of four Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship teams with the Fire, winning his first five days after the club's '98 league triumph.
"The Open Cup is something our club has taken very seriously over the years," said Brown about the longest continual cup competition in American sport. "Every preseason we ask what we're here for, and the answer is to win trophies. With that in mind, I think we've placed the importance of the tournament higher on our priority list than other MLS teams and the results have reflected that."
It is through the tournament that Brown found his way to Major League Soccer, impressing MLS sides after helping the USISL Division Three San Francisco Bay Seals to the semifinals of the 1997 Open Cup, where they fell 2-1 to DC United.
Along with Armas and another former teammate in Diego Gutierrez, Brown's four U.S. Open Cup championships are a record for one player during the tournament's "Professional Era", having won again in 2000, 2003 and 2000.
The 2000 championship in particular holds a special story for the defender.
Originally scheduled for October 22, 2000, a Sunday at Soldier Field, the final coincided with Brown's scheduled wedding on the same day.
"My wife told me I had to miss the game because it was our wedding day in California. I had to tell her there was no way I could do that."
Fortunately for Brown, his future wife Kim and the Fire, the Chicago Marathon was scheduled for the same day necessitating a move of the final from Sunday to Saturday - Relief!
Playing the full 90 minutes, the Fire would go on to defeat the Miami Fusion 2-1 and Brown took off.
"Kim gave me her blessing, saying it was ok, as long as I got to California on time. It wasn't my best performance as I had other things on my mind, but we still came away with the victory and I high-tailed it out west soon after. The next day, some of my teammates even made it for the wedding as well."
Coming up on his 13th season with the Fire, Brown's also thankful for the support Section 8 and its predecessors have given the club over his years in Chicago.
"They've been a huge part of the Fire's success since day one. When we moved to Naperville while Soldier Field was being renovated, the numbers dipped a bit but returning to the city and then making it Toyota Park, they're as strong as they've ever been and as a player it really lifts you to know someone's supporting you through good times and bad."
Brown will look to help the club gain its first three points of 2010 this Saturday when the Fire travel to Denver to take on the Colorado Rapids at 3:00 pm CT.