USOC: Oral history of the Fire's dramatic double in 1998

The Chicago Fire are back in the US Open Cup final, but even a win against the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday might not mean as much as it did when the franchise won the very first time.

The 1998 Chicago Fire beat D.C. United 2-0 to win the MLS Cup on Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Rose Bowl and celebrated that night, but their season wasn’t done. They returned Monday morning and faced a short turnaround for the USOC final against the Columbus Crew on Friday in Chicago.

Not that it was supposed to be that way. The Open Cup final was originally scheduled to be played in September in Virginia Beach, but, thanks to a hurricane, the match was postponed and moved to Soldier Field. That just ended up making things all the more special for the Fire, who wrote their own history after the opening whistle.  

Here’s the 1998 team’s version of the Open Cup final, picked up in the hours following Chicago’s MLS Cup win.

Frank Klopas, forward; current interim head coach: It was kind of a little weird, because you win MLS Cup and you’re celebrating, and you still have one game left, you know? Obviously we had a good celebration, but I knew we still had an opportunity to win another championship. So even though we for sure enjoyed the MLS Cup and the celebrations were a really good time, we were still focused.

C.J. Brown, defender: We had some very strong veterans with Peter Nowak and Francis Okaroh and Lubos Kubik and Roman Kosecki, so those guys knew what was going on and they kept everybody’s heads where they should be.

Diego Gutiérrez, defender: It wasn’t ever an issue of us partying all week and taking this team lightly. Columbus was a good team, we gave them credit and they came hungry. They saw that game as their one opportunity to come away with a trophy.

Brown: There was definitely a lot of confidence going into it.

Jesse Marsch, midfielder: When you have Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubik, you can always be very confident.

Peter Wilt, general manager and president: I was feeling pretty cocky. It seemed almost like a team of destiny.

The Fire took the field on Oct. 30 in front of crowd still delirious over the team’s MLS Cup win. The Fire had reason to be confident, but also to be cautious: The Crew won the teams’ second meeting of the season that July by a score of 3-0, fueled in part by a goal each from Stern John and Brian McBride.

Marsch: I remember coming on for warm-ups and the stadium had like 25,000 people in it already and they all gave us a full standing ovation when we came out.

Klopas: We just couldn’t wait to get that game going, we had a lot of positive energy and a lot of excitement.

Mike Jeffries, assistant coach: Being at home was awesome, that was a huge plus for us. I think it really was something that got the guys juiced up.

Marsch: But [sweeper Lubos Kubik] got hurt early.

Jeffries: That wasn’t something that we had prepared for.  I think [Nowak] came to the sideline and had a quick conversation with [manager Bob Bradley] and said, “Look, I can manage this from the back.”

Marsch: So Peter went back and played sweeper, and he actually played great. I think he definitely was thinking of himself as “The Kaiser.”

Chris Armas, midfielder: I never even thought twice about it. Peter Nowak is the best player I ever played with.

Brown: It was very, very weird to have him in between me and [defender Francis Okaroh] there, but Peter was a great player. He could play defense, he could be attacking, and he jumped in the role and did really well.

Marsch: And Josh Wolff [pictured, at right] was all over the place. He was chasing guys down, trying to be available for every long ball; he put them on their heels the whole game.

Armas: Josh is hard to defend against because his feet are so quick and he gets by you. He’d get tackled, fouled and he drew a lot of penalties because most of the time he’s running against slower defenders.

Marsch: And he drew the PK that [Jerzy Podbrozny] scored on right before halftime.

Josh Wolff, forward: I do remember drawing that PK. That’s just being young, going for things and you get in the box and things are dangerous.

Jerzy Podbrozny converted the penalty kick in the 45th minute, giving the Fire what seemed like a comfortable lead. But it didn’t last long, eventually setting the stage for some drama from a 91st-minute substitute and a player who instantly became a hometown hero.

Marsch: We felt like a 1-0 lead was a very good position for us to be in. At halftime I think there was confidence in the room and we just wanted to keep going.

Jeffries: Then [Columbus forward] Stern John scored.

Marsch: It felt like a very comfortable game until they scored, and then all of a sudden you could see there was the urgency and they started to gain a little bit of confidence. Maybe we were too casual about the lead, but I think the game really went to another level at that point. There was a lot of competing on the field and then it went into extra time.

Wolff: At that point it’s more about what you had inside. The opportunity we had to win that second championship; that was everything in that moment.

Jeffries: The guys were very tired at that point and we felt [Klopas] was the right guy to bring on.

Wolff: No greater thing than for Frankie to come on in front of our home fans.

Wilt: I was in a suite on the west side of the stadium. I had seen that Frankie had come in as a sub, and I remember thinking that he could be a part of the destiny.

Klopas: I had a feeling the day before and the day of the final that I was going to go in and score the winning goal. I just visualized scoring that goal coming in. I was going to come in and I just had a very positive feeling that I was going to score the goal. I couldn’t explain to you why, I just had that feeling.

Armas: It was a corner kick.

Klopas: We had a corner, the ball was played and I think Podbrozny jumped up and won the header. The minute he went up I was already moving into the space because I kind of just felt the ball was going to be where I was moving. Sometimes it’s just like that. The speed of the game was so fast, but everything was very slow to me in that moment. I just saw everything slow motion and I moved into the space, the ball came, and it was very wet and stuff, but I had a good first touch and the second one was in.

Marsch: And then he ran and jumped behind the goal. We all chased him and then he jumped back over the boards and kept on running down the field.

Klopas: I think it was the fastest sprint I made in my life. I don’t even know what I was doing. I just … I was just running, I saw the boards, hopped out, hopped in and wanted to celebrate with my teammates. I didn’t even know I was running.

Marsch: I think we chased him for 200 yards.

Brown: I was going ballistic. What better tribute to a guy from Chicago?

Marsch: My first thought is perfect, just perfect. Frankie, it’s his hometown, it was great.

Jeffries: Pure excitement. It was just bedlam.

Wilt: Pure elation, just pure elation.

Gutiérrez: It was indescribable.

Armas: What a great memory. It was a dream season, a dream year.

Jeffries: We did the double. We won the league, we won the Open Cup. What a great year.

Wilt: The picture in mind is of Francis Okaroh. The lid of the Open Cup had fallen off and he put it on his head as a hat and he ran around the field high-fiving the fans, waving to the fans with the lid of the trophy on his head and with the biggest smile on his face. It was an amazing experience.

Marsch: But the best thing about the old Open Cup trophy was that it fit a lot of champagne in it.

Klopas: There was a lot of celebrating, a lot of celebrating. It was just great just to reflect back on the whole season and sit there in the locker room with the Cup and drink champagne from it with all the guys. It was just great moments like that.

Gutiérrez: Going into that locker room and basically looking each other in the face and realizing we had accomplished what we set out to do – that’s a fantastic feeling.

Wilt: It was just a sense of relief that this amazing year had come to the best possible conclusion. All of our hard work paid off.

Klopas: There are players that I haven’t seen since, but I can take that picture and in that moment we’ll be together forever. That group, that always will unite us together and it’s a great feeling. It was the perfect end to the perfect season.

Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at sam.h.stejskal@gmail.com.