The club’s 15th anniversary match is just around the corner on Wednesday, October 3. One of the special guests set to be in attendance along with former captains Peter Nowak and Chris Armas is legendary Mexico and Fire midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
“I’m really happy about coming back to Chicago after a really long time,” said Blanco. “I’m happy that amongst the Club directors, club owner, and the people of the Fire, they have named me for the invitation and recognition.”
Considered by many as the best Designated Player signing in Major League Soccer history, at the time, many questioned if the then 34-year-old Blanco was coming to the league as an early retirement home.
The inspirational Mexican attacker would soon prove doubters wrong, bringing a type of flair that has rarely been seen in the league when he joined the Fire midway through the 2007 season. That year the team certainly needed him, having won only four of 16 matches before his first competitive appearance in a 3-0 victory at Toronto FC on July 29.
Blanco would go on to tally four goals (one of which was named Goal of the Year) and seven assists in 14 games, helping the Fire clinch a postseason berth on the last day of the season. In the playoffs, the man that made famous the “bunny hop” would help the Fire to the first of three straight conference championship matches but would get to know a familiar feeling, falling 1-0 to New England at the final hurdle before MLS Cup.
The next season was arguably Blanco’s best in MLS, recording seven goals and 11 assists over 27 matches. Named to the MLS All-Star team that year, Blanco tallied a 45 minute goal and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player as the MLS XI defeated West Ham United 3-2 at BMO Field in Toronto.
The Fire clinched a playoff berth much sooner that season, navigating past Kansas City in the first round to advance to another Eastern Conference final at Columbus. Though holding a 1-0 halftime lead, the side fell victim to two second half goals, eventually falling just short again of an MLS Cup appearance.
The 2009 season saw the Fire once again earn a playoff berth and negotiate through a tough first round series against bitter rivals New England. It was in the second leg of the home and home contest that Blanco scored perhaps his most memorable goal in a Fire shirt.
WATCH: #Fire15 Memorable Matches 10-12
Playing in front of a capacity crowd at Toyota Park, the Fire had tied the aggregate series at 1-1 through John Thorrington’s 35th minute goal. The electric atmosphere inside the stadium that night pushed the Men in Red to peppering Matt Reis’ goal throughout the second half, but the team didn’t break through until Patrick Nyarko’s feed from the right found Blanco in the box. Methodically, the Mexican attacker dribbled around a defender before placing his shot past Reis and sending the crowd into pandemonium.
The win advanced the team to yet another Conference final, this time at home. Yet again though, the Fire would fall most dramatically in a penalty kick shootout to eventual Cup champions Real Salt Lake.
That game would be Blanco’s last in a Fire shirt, leaving the Fire having bagged 19 goals and 28 assists in 77 competitive matches.
The late playoff exits are something he remembers well but holds no regrets.
“Of course [not winning] is disappointing. At the same time, you have to give credit to the teams that beat us and went on to win.”
Still playing at age 39 with Mexican Liga de Ascenso side Dorados Sinaloa, Blanco admitted to maintaining deep feelings for the Chicago Fire, watching the team’s success this season from afar.
“Lord willing, they will end up being champions [this year],” he said. “I have a great affection towards the club and the fans there in Chicago as well as my countrymen that would come watch me play.”
And perhaps that’s his lasting legacy in the Windy City. While the Fire came just short of championship appearances, Blanco entertained while making the team better, all the while helping the club further an important connection with a strong community in Chicago.
As for being welcomed back to Toyota Park next week, the transcendent figure is honored to be part of the club’s 15th anniversary celebration.
“It makes me very content and happy. That’s recognition of all the hard work you gave while with the club. I’m excited to come back to Chicago.”
Come celebrate the Fire's 15th anniversary with Cuauhtémoc Blanco Wednesday October 3rd as the Fire take on Philadelphia at 7:30pm CLICK HERE for tickets.