#NYvCHI: The big stars, heroes and controversial moments

Clint Mathis vs. Brian McBride

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The New York Red Bulls will host the Chicago Fire on Saturday (3:30 pm ET, NBC), and in honor of the latest chapter in one of the league's biggest rivalries, we're gearing up.

This week, we'll look at the best moments, the best games and the best players to ever suit up for either team and take an in-depth look at the game itself and what it means as the final playoff push takes the stage at Red Bull Arena.

In our first installment, MLSsoccer.com Armchair Analyst and unapologetic New Yorker Matthew Doyle and senior editor and deep-dish pizza aficionado Nick Firchau look back at some of the defining faces and moments in each team's history.

Four World Cup winners have played in MLS, all of them for New York. Branco was more interested in the nightlife, and Youri Djorkaeff was great, but not nearly as great as Thierry Henry or Lothar Matthäus. So it comes down to those two and, in all honesty, Lothar should get the nod. He’s the only MLSer in history to win FIFA’s World Player of the year, and is probably the single-best player ever to wear an MLS jersey. Of course, he was a total knob in his time with the MetroStars, so forget him. Henry, on the other hand, is a top 5 MVP candidate for the second year running, has made a point of helping develop the young talent on the team, and unlike Lothar, doesn’t summer in St. Tropez.

 

BIGGEST STAR

The Fire have opened their arms to a number of players who’d already carved out their identity elsewhere, including Peter Nowak, Hristo Stoitchkov, Brian McBride and perhaps most notably Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who could hardly walk the streets in Mexico when he relocated to the North Side in 2007. But long before he was the captain of the US national team or a regular in the English Premier League, Carlos Bocanegra first frosted his tips and impressed crowds during the early days in Chicago. Bocanegra left for Fulham in 2003 after his second straight MLS Defender of the Year award (he was the top rookie in 2000 as well), but above all the others they imported from outside the 312 area code, Chicago can always claim Captain America as their own.

If Titi keeps tapping his “MetroStars” armband, he could end up topping this list as well. As of now, though, it comes down to Juan Pablo Ángel, Mike Petke, Clint Mathis and Gio Savarese. Both JPA and Gio were pure goal scorers and Petke was the local hero. Cleetus (above, left), however, was something altogether different. He played, both on and off the pitch, with swag. He turned on the southern charm and shotgunned beers with the fans. He shaved his hair into a mohawk. He scored some of the greatest goals in league history. But mostly, he turned his basement into a nightclub – complete with kegerator and $10,000 sound system – called POGO Lounge. Google away, if you dare.

 

MOST BELOVED PLAYER

Two players instantly jump to the forefront in Chicago Fire lore: Chris Armas and C.J. Brown. But of the two, Brown was an undeniable iron man who never played a single minute with any other MLS team, and the one who danced in delight in front of Section 8 after every win. He was also arguably the perfect embodiment for the Fire, in that he was never really a star and never a USMNT target, but always considered the consummate teammate. He was elected into the team’s “Ring of Fire” Hall of Fame last year after a franchise-record 296 regular-season games and another 35 in the playoffs, but he gave up the right for a fitting fan send-off during his last game so that teammate McBride could have the spoils instead. Enough said.

The New York metro area is one of the nation’s talent hotbeds, and most of the local, high-profile pros (including Petke) have worn the team’s colors – usually for far too few games. Really, though, the only choice here is Tim Howard. Timmy was one of the first “preps to pros” in MLS history, signing a Project 40 (remember that?) contract at the age of 19 after deciding to skip college. He eventually won the starting job fulltime by age 22, and by 23 was the league’s best ‘keeper. Manchester United noticed, and in the middle of 2003 Howard made what is still the league’s highest-profile transfer. He’s had his ups and downs for both club and country since, but Timmy is rightfully the US No. 1, one of the world’s top ‘keepers and a perfect example of “this is how it should be done.”

 

HOMEGROWN HERO

With all due respect to Fort Wayne, Ind., native DaMarcus Beasley and former Chicago prep hero Frank “Kid” Klopas, was there a bigger local star to don a Fire kit than Brian McBride? Of course he’s certainly better known as the first member of the Columbus Crew, but tell that to the fans who streamed into Toyota Park after McBride (above, right) came home from England and joined the Fire in 2008. He never put up the numbers he did with either Columbus or Fulham during two-plus seasons in Chicago, but to see the greatest player Illinois ever produced playing for the hometown team resonated from the city to the suburbs and beyond.

Uh, there’ve been a few. The “Red Bull” rebrand elicited a spectrum of fan reaction; Matthäus' summer “rehab” stint on the beach was memorable for all the wrong reasons; Djorkaeff left the team in mid-2006 to tend to his ailing mother, only to be shown in the stands at France’s World Cup opener. But No. 1 on this list has to be the disastrous 1999 season, one in which former GM Charlie Stillitano gutted the roster in order to clear cap space for Matthäus, who had given assurances he’d sign that spring. Lothar, of course, changed his mind, staying one last year with Bayern Munich. So Metro fans – who’d already had a miserable 1998 – were treated to an even worse 1999. Germany’s Bild called those Metros “The worst team in the world,” and, if anything, they might have been underselling it.

 

BIGGEST CONTROVERSY

The Fire were one of the most stable teams in MLS for years, but the one move that shook the team to its core still reverberates in fan circles. Beloved team president Peter Wilt was let go by former ownership group AEG in 2005 and replaced by former MetroStars exec John Guppy, severing arguably the strongest tie to the club’s early and most successful days in 1998. Wilt, who hired Bob Bradley and convinced Peter Nowak to take a shot on MLS before the Fire ever played a game, could match business wits with barroom behavior with the best of them. Despite his contributions to the club, Guppy never quite shook his predecessor’s specter among some die-hard fans, especially with a full-throated Wilt still cheering his team from Section 8 even after he was let go.

Many New York fans are partial to Dave van den Bergh’s goal and subsequent celebration in the 2008 Western Conference Championship, putting NY in their first (and to date, only) MLS Cup. That, however, is a distant second to March of 2010 when, after a decade-and-a-half, the local side finally got their own stadium. With only a few exceptions, soccer in Giants Stadium was a miserable experience. Soccer in Red Bull Arena, on the other hand, is pretty much a religious one. RBNY opened their new home with a friendly win vs. Santos, as Joel Lindpere got the first goal in RBA history. A week later, vs. the Fire, he did it again, getting the first official goal in RBA history and leading New York to a 1-0 win. Nothing in club history – before or since – has matched the promise of that month.

 

SHINING MOMENT

The Fire’s first year on the map was their best, and they’ve been chasing that success ever since. Bradley piloted a team with the likes of Armas, Nowak, Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov to the MLS Cup title at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 25, 1998, and less than a week later Klopas scored the game-winner in extra time at Soldier Field to give them the US Open Cup. That week is undoubtedly the best in franchise history, despite three more USOC titles, two additional MLS Cup appearances and a Supporters’ Shield in 2003. The Fire are a team rooted in tradition like few others in MLS, and despite their success in 2012, each year without a title is simply one more removed from the glory days.