Tonight, Orlando City welcomes the Chicago Fire to Orlando City Stadium for the lone scheduled home meeting of 2018 with the Men in Red. This season, the Fire are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their inaugural season of 1998. It was a historic season as they achieved what no other club has during an inaugural MLS campaign.
Major League Soccer began play in 1996 with 10 teams. Two years later, they added a pair of additional teams, the Miami Fusion and the Chicago Fire. The Miami Fusion would only last for four seasons, folding along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny on Jan. 8, 2002. For the Fire, the 1998 season would be a memorable one, launching the club’s moniker of “Kings of the Cup.”
The class of MLS in its early years was D.C. United, winning two MLS Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, and a U.S. Open Cup. A flagship team of the league, D.C. was led by successful college coach Bruce Arena. Obviously unable to acquire the services of Arena, the Fire chose his top assistant as the first coach in club history, a 39-year-old named Bob Bradley. Bradley had been an assistant under Arena on three separate occasions at the University of Virginia, for the U.S. U-23 National Team, and for the first two years of D.C. United’s existence.
More impressive than hiring Bradley, who would go on to become arguably the greatest American soccer coach ever, is the way the club built its team. Like many teams do today, the Fire used a combination of experienced European stars and young American talent.
The Fire featured a group that was dubbed the “Eastern Bloc.” This group featured 1860 Munich star and Poland captain Piotr Nowak, Czech sweeper Lubos Kubik, and Polish strikers Roman Kosecki and Jerzy Podbrozny. The biggest coup for the club was bringing in a bona fide superstar in Hristo Stoichkov who, though 32 years old, made 336 appearances and scored 162 goals for the Spanish giants, FC Barcelona.
The Fire combined this group with young American talent in Chris Armas, Josh Wolff, Jesse Marsch, and Ante Razov. While Armas was an MLS All-Star, only Razov had featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team at that point, but all would by the end of their careers.
The 1998 MLS season included an 11-game win streak for the Fire and, like most teams in the physical MLS, several injuries to key players. At one point or another, most of the Eastern Bloc spent time rehabilitating. At the end of the year, the Fire finished with a 20-12 record, good enough for second in the Western Conference.
After dispatching the Colorado Rapids, the Fire faced the Galaxy, owners of the second-best record in the league. The Fire beat the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl through a Jesse Marsch 86th-minute goal, before returning home, where they beat the Galaxy in a shootout in front of nearly 33,000 Chicagoans. A week later at the Rose Bowl, the student beat his teacher as the Fire defeated D.C. United, 2-0, to become the first team to win MLS Cup in its expansion year.
Winning MLS Cup in an expansion year would be an amazing accomplishment, but it wasn’t the only trophy the Fire would win in 1998. After flying through the PDL’s Chicago Stingers in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup, the Fire beat the San Jose Clash in a shootout and the Dallas Burn, 3-2, to advance to the U.S. Open Cup final. It took an extra 30-minute period, but the Fire defeated the Columbus Crew, 2-1, to become the second MLS team to complete the league and cup double.
The 2009 Seattle Sounders did the improbable by qualifying for the postseason and winning the U.S. Open Cup during their inaugural MLS campaign. It was a season that every expansion team since has attempted to at least match but has fallen short. While there were three more teams in the league in 2009 than in 1998 and the originals had many more years to develop, the Chicago Fire did something during their inaugural season that we may never see again.