On a sunny, 74-degree and gorgeous day in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, a game that would shape the face of a franchise would take place as the Chicago Fire battled the defending two-time MLS Cup champions D.C. United to a 2-0 win in MLS Cup '98. The Fire, led offensively by midfield master Peter Nowak, scored two first-half goals that would stand unitl the end of regulation time. Chicago's inaugural '98 team is the last and only Fire team to win the MLS top trophy.
Jesse Marsch, the former-D.C. midfielder and "Fire Original," played the entire 90 minutes that fateful day. When asked about which game is his most memorable, he replies without hesitation, "MLS Cup 1998. That year D.C. had its way with the league, and we were big-time underdogs coming in. D.C. had loads of good players, but we had been playing well and playing with a lot of confidence."
Marsch feels that the difference between the two teams that day was the game plan former Fire head coach Bob Bradley had going into the final.
"Our coach had a really good game plan for us against them," said Marsch. "Bob knew D.C. from coaching there the year before, and we followed his plan well. We managed to get two before the half and hung on from there."
The postseason rivalry between Chicago and D.C. continues this Sunday when the Fire travel East for Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series. Sunday's game (3:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2) will be played at RFK Stadium, not the Rose Bowl, and in front of raucous fans, not an impartial crowd. But that doesn't seem to matter one bit to Marsch.
"I like RFK because I remember playing there with D.C.," he explained. "It's always in good shape and the field is very big. And even when there are a few fans there it still has that roof that keeps in a lot of noise. So I think it really has a good ambiance, even for a big stadium."
Jim Curtin, who at the time of MLS Cup '98 was still hitting the books at Villanova while playing defense for the Wildcats, remembers the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2003 being his most vivid Fire-United matchup.
"The playoff game [at RFK] against them in 2003. It was just a real tight game early on, a typical playoff game. We got a good early goal from Andy Williams, and we kept things tight," Curtin recalled. "They really didn't have many chances. Ante Razov got a great goal to put us up 2-0. It has to be one of the best games.
"Of course, then we came back to Soldier Field and we knew we had the advantage, and we protected it well. We beat them 2-0 and it was the most sound playoff series that I've ever been in. We kind of knew we had them under control the whole time."
On playing at RFK, Curtin feels he always gets the same taunts during the game, but still has fun.
"I get the Larry Bird thing a lot," said Curtin. "They always call me Big Bird or Larry Bird, which is a pretty bad insult, I guess. But aside from our stadium it's my favorite place to play. I enjoy it there. I think they have good fans and I have a lot of family that comes out to watch me play because it's on the East Coast. I've had some of my better games there, so I enjoy it a lot."
Fire rookie forward Chris Rolfe wasn't playing professional, or even collegiate ball during MLS Cup '98. The Dayton product was busy racking up record numbers of goals for his high school team, instead. But fast-forward seven years down the road and Rolfe finds himself the most potent weapon the Fire has had at D.C. this season. His first goal of his MLS career helped the "Men in Red" get their first point of the campaign in April, and he'll now look to add to his team-best three tallies against United during his rookie campaign. For Rolfe, RFK proves to be challenging, but rewarding.
"I don't like it, not with the baseball field," says Rolfe. "The lines are crooked and it feels like you're running crooked. That being said, I do enjoy playing there. I have had some success there and I'm excited to play on Sunday."
Rolfe feels the winner of Sunday's high-stakes matchup in the Nation's Capital will be whichever team controls the midfield play.
"It should be a lot like last game. Whoever wins the midfield," Rolfe said. "If our midfield can come out on top against theirs, we should have a good amount of chances. That's where it is. The game will be won in the midfield."
Asked to describe D.C. United in one word, Rolfe thinks for a moment and replies, "offensive." Sunday's match up should be just that, should both teams decide to play like they did during their regular season, and past postseason matches. If both teams come out on the offensive, the 0-0 draw seen last Friday at Soldier Field will be forgotten, and the winner will go on to make more goals ... and memories.