Having an expansion team join your league is a good thing. It means enough people want more teams to follow, and more games to watch. However, it doesn’t always feel like a good thing because most expansion teams begin life by taking players away from established franchises. Most of the time, those rosters are patched together with unwanted players, so success isn’t guaranteed, but in 1998 the Chicago Fire changed all of that.
Joining the MLS
The Chicago Fire joined the MLS when one team reigned supreme. The 1990s was the decade where D.C. United dominated the MLS, and the franchise won the first two MLS Cups in 1996 and 1997. Chicago joined the league with the now-defunct Miami Fusion. While big things were not expected from either franchise, it was the team based in Illinois that showed what you could do with great team spirit.
Led by an American legend
Although they didn’t know it at the time, Chicago’s manager, Bob Bradley, would go on to become an American soccer coaching hero. Bradley had spent a season at D.C. United in 1996-97, and took everything he learned with him to Chicago in 1998. The coach was able to bring together his team of players who came from all around the country to surpass expectations.
The regular season
If the Fire was going to win the MLS Cup, the team needed to successfully make it through the regular season. Once the Fire got onto the pitch, it seemed as though they had all been playing together for years. At one stage, Chicago went on an 11-game winning streak that made a mockery of the rest of the MLS.
It was at that stage where the team finally began to believe they had something special on their hands. Denis Hamlett, Bob Bradley’s assistant in the 1998 season, felt that their 11-game streak was the moment the team all came together to make sure they saw things through. The Fire finished second in the Western Conference, meaning they were going to the playoffs.
Negotiating the playoffs
The first test for the Fire in the playoffs was a two-game series against the Colorado Rapids, and just like in the regular season, there was no beating Chicago. The Fire went through to the next round of the playoffs, the conference final against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Bradley had installed a mindset in his players that meant they were prepared to work hard for their results.
The final series was best of three, but the Fire only needed two games to seal the conference title and move on to the MLS Cup. The team they would be facing in the MLS Cup was D.C. United, looking for their third title in a row. In a one-off final, Chicago beat D.C. United 2-0 with Jerzy Podbrożny and Diego Gutiérrez scoring the decisive goals. Peter Nowak was the man who set up both of those goals, earning himself the MLS Cup MVP award.
As if sealing victory in the MLS Cup wasn’t enough, the Fire secured a remarkable double by winning the U.S. Open Cup. They showed that expansion teams can be successful, even if it’s not the norm.