As shown by the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” 1998 was the last hurrah for the Bulls’ dynasty.
It was the opposite for the Fire.
“It was the beginning of something special, having [outdoor] soccer back in our great city,” said Fire assistant coach Frank Klopas, a forward with the nascent team in 1998 and 1999. “It was the beginning of something special. Not the end. Maybe my career was coming towards the end, but it was really a great start to a great beginning for the sport of soccer and to have that back in the city.”
Despite being the third-largest market in the U.S., Chicago had to wait until MLS’ third season to have a franchise. The first Fire team had one of the most successful years in U.S. soccer history, winning the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup.
But as then-general manager Peter Wilt recalls, some didn’t expect much.
Wilt remembers that only one writer from a panel of Soccer America’s experts picked the Fire to make the playoffs. That disrespect irked Wilt, who clipped the article and put it on a bulletin board in his office. The piece motivated Wilt as the season wore on and it became more and more apparent that the Fire could do something in their debut.
“We were indeed beating the odds,” Wilt said. “We were underdogs, and we were surprising people.”
Wilt and coach Bob Bradley brought in players such as Klopas, Peter Nowak, Roman Kosecki and Jorge Campos. They could help the Fire win games but also connect with the community.
“Certainly, the players we brought in representing different parts of Chicago’s diverse constituents . . . those were conscious decisions made that would appeal to Chicago,” Wilt said. “They weren’t made in a vacuum that they were only made to appeal to Chicagoans. They were anticipated that they would help the team, and that these were all very good players that would perform well and help us win.”
That performance helped establish the Fire in Chicago. In 1998, MLS still was trying to find a foothold, and the Fire were the first major outdoor soccer team in the city since the Sting went indoors after the 1984 NASL season.
Eventually winning the double didn’t hurt, though it was a tough act to follow.
“In some ways, you can argue it’s the worst thing we could’ve done, right?” Wilt said. “Set the bar very high, and it’s so difficult to reach that level again, to win the double. In some ways, the best thing you can do is under-promise then slowly keep beating that mark year after year.”
Klopas echoed that.
“It’s impossible to kind of repeat what we did every year,” Klopas said. “I think you can give everything and put everything into it to try to repeat that. I think that’s the kind of mentality we had.”
Part of the Fire’s mentality stemmed from what the players had to do in 1998.
Klopas said the April 4 home opener, a 2-0 win over Tampa Bay in front of 36,444, set the tone. It also reminded everybody what they were playing for.
“We were off to a flying start,” said Klopas, who scored twice in that game. “After that game, everybody kind of felt like we’ve got a great following, we’ve got a great fan base and everybody felt a bigger responsibility to make sure that we do everything that we can that we have success within our team and make sure the sport continues to grow in this country.”