BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Two World Cups, an Olympics appearance, four domestic titles and 52 caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team are just a few of Josh Wolff’s many accomplishments from his 15-year MLS career.
And according to Wolff, he doesn’t think he’d have accomplished any of those things, had he not began his career with the Chicago Fire in 1998.
“Coming out of college you just don’t know – you’re not sure, you’re not prepared for it,” Wolff told Chicago-Fire.com recently. “Obviously landing here and the direction the club went in at such an early stage was instrumental as far as me becoming a professional.”
Wolff was part of the 1998 Nike Project-40 class (a precursor to the modern day Generation adidas) and found his way to Chicago via MLS player allocation.
With a strong mix of international veterans like Piotr Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Jerzy Podbrozny and early league talent like Chris Armas, Ante Razov and Frank Klopas, it would take a few months for Wolff to make his first Fire appearance.
When it did finally come, he needed just two minutes to score his first MLS goal, capping a 5-0 rout over Colorado on May 23, 1998.
He’d be part of the double-winning side that season but perhaps his biggest single moment for the Men in Red came with his “golden goal” tap-in in the team’s 2000 U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory at the LA Galaxy.
“It was very crowded, very intense and we’d already had some very heated matchups with LA in previous years and it was a good rivalry for us,” Wolff remembered.
“It was an intense game and obviously both teams were loaded with talent and national team players and along with that you had egos and volatility. It was a heated game, it was physical.”
Merely using “physical” as a way to describe the match probably does it a disservice as 12 yellow cards were shown along with Fire rookie defender Carlos Bocanegra being sent off in the 20th minute.
The two sides would trade goals in the last 11 minutes of the game, with Cobi Jones tallying for the Galaxy in the 79th and Ante Razov from Nowak and Wolff six minutes later.
Just before the game headed to extra time, the pure brutality of the match reared its head when Luis Hernandez pulled down Nowak from behind before clearly and intentionally stepping on the Fire captain’s face.
Despite the clear infraction, referee Terry Vaughn awarded the Galaxy forward just a yellow card as Nowak could no longer continue.
“We stuck with the challenge,” said Wolff before the extra time period began. “Bob always preached being detailed and paying attention to all the little things and giving yourself a chance to win it.”
That chance came for Wolff in the 112th minute as the Stone Mountain, Georgia product laid off the eight of a 10-pass sequence for Razov before making his way towards goal. Razov slipped hard-charging DaMarcus Beasley into the box on the left, where the then Fire rookie forced a save out of Galaxy ‘keeper Matt Reis before Wolff pounced on the rebound.
“It was a tap-in,” he laughed. “It wasn’t that I did anything spectacular. As a team we put together 10 passes on the goal and obviously we were down a guy but it just shows the mentality we had with the ability to play late in the game in a hostile place – getting the goal to move us into the championship.”
That goal is one of seven that Wolff scored for the Fire in Open Cup play, good enough for second all-time with the club behind only Andy Herron.
The first person Wolff hugged as he jumped over the end boards was ejected defender Carlos Bocanegra who “might have been disguised in a security shirt” and “backwards cap” according to Wolff. From there, the entire Fire delegation at Cal-State Fullerton celebrated the unlikely goal.
“You talk about the Fire in those early years, it was family. I think any player that played in those teams will probably say it was the best time of their careers.”
Thirteen years on from that match, Wolff, now an assistant with D.C. United, will face his former club in next Wednesday’s semifinal at Toyota Park.
The matchup will feature two of the tournament’s most successful clubs with the Fire having won four titles and United another two, between them they have 10 separate appearances in the Open Cup final.
“There’s a lot of good meaning, these are two organizations that are right there along with the LA Galaxy as being the most successful clubs in league history.
"The Open Cup is getting better, it’s getting more competitive and obviously these moments are important to every organization.”