The Chicago Fire announced Monday the 2004 winners of the team's four annual awards - the Honda MVP Award, Budweiser Scoring Champion, Defender of the Year and U.S. Soccer Foundation Humanitarian of the Year. For the second consecutive year, four different members of the Fire were given the honors, led by goalkeeper Henry Ring's breakout performance that earned the first-year starter his first Fire Honda MVP award. Another stellar campaign from forward Damani Ralph earned the Jamaican striker his first Fire/Budweiser Scoring title, while the consistent Jim Curtin was voted as the Fire Defender of the Year. Members of the Chicagoland media voted for the Honda MVP Award and Defender of the Year honors, while this year's U.S. Soccer Foundation Humanitarian of the Year, midfielder Jesse Marsch, was bestowed his award by the Chicago Fire Community Relations Department.
Fire Honda MVP - Henry Ring
The Fire entered the 2004 season with uncertainty about their goalkeeping situation, but longtime back-up Henry Ring emerged from the shadow of longtime stalwart Zach Thornton to become the Fire's starting goalkeeper and cemented his spot in between the posts with his steady and stellar play.
After a rough start in a 5-2 loss at San Juan Jabloteh in the 2004 CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinals, Ring would rebound in fine fashion, not allowing a goal across all competitions for 337 minutes, while helping the "Men in Red" to the semifinals of the tournament and scoreless draws in their first two league matches. Clean sheets would be a common occurrence during the first few months of the 2004 season, as the former University of South Carolina netminder would become the first goalkeeper in MLS history to allow zero goals in four of his team's first five matches to begin a season en route to posting six shutouts in the Fire's first 10 contests.
The year would bring a handful of accolades for Ring, highlighted by his first-ever appearance in the Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game, in which he started for the Eastern Conference and allowed only one goal against the best from the West. Ring would also earn a team-high three MLSNet.com Man of the Match awards (4/3 @ KC, 5/1 vs. MET and 7/11 vs. NE), in addition to his first Honda MLS Player of the Week award for his eight-save effort against D.C. United in Week 5. Ring would end the 2004 campaign among the league's leaders with 128 saves (3rd in MLS), seven shutouts (T-3rd), 2,540 minutes played (T-4th) and a 75.3% save percentage (3rd).
Fire/Budweiser Scoring Champion - Damani Ralph
Second-year standout Damani Ralph became just the third different player in the team's seven-year history to capture the Fire/Budweiser Scoring title, as his 25 points on 11 goals and three assists easily outdistanced the rest of the "Men in Red" in 2004. After a breakout rookie campaign in 2003, Ralph became the focal point of opposing defenses this year, but the talented Jamaican was still able to produce a similar 11-goal total despite the extra attention.
The team's dependence on Ralph was evident, as a season-ending injury to five-time Fire/Budweiser Scoring champ Ante Razov forced Ralph to take a league-high 89 shots while he attempted to blend in with a myriad of different running mates up top during the second half of the season. Ralph's scoring output not only outdistanced the rest of the squad by eight points (followed by fellow countryman Andy Williams' 17 points), but it once again placed him in the top 10 of the Budweiser MLS Scoring Chart, finishing eighth in total points while coming within one goal for a share of the league lead in that category.
Fire Defender of the Year - Jim Curtin
As one of the most consistent players in the league during his four-year tenure with the Fire, many considered 2004 as a breakout year for Fire defender Jim Curtin. The towering central back was forced to step up his leadership role in the back after the departures of two-time MLS Defender of the Year Carlos Bocanegra and perennial starting goalkeeper Zach Thornton, and Curtin did just that, leading by example by playing every minute of the 2004 season, becoming just the third player in team history to accomplish the feat.
Curtin's respect not only grew in team circles but around the league as well, as the Villanova product earned his first nod to the Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game, in which he started and played all 90 minutes in a 3-2 win for his Eastern Conference side. Curtin will look to continue his team records of 62 straight games played and 60 consecutive starts when the Fire kicks off its 2005 campaign next spring.
U.S. Soccer Foundation Humanitarian of the Year - Jesse Marsch
While providing leadership on the field for the "Men in Red," midfielder and "Fire Original" Jesse Marsch is just as active off the field, as the Racine, Wisc., native has donated his time and efforts towards several charitable and community-related activities throughout the Chicagoland area, leading to his first U.S. Soccer Foundation Humanitarian of the Year honor.
Among the largest projects for Marsch is his work with the Christopher House Foundation, for whom he has served as the Honorary Chairman for the last two years of the organization's annual 5K Walk/Run For Literacy event on the Chicago lakefront, which has helped raise awareness for the cause and needed donations for the charity.
Marsch has also continued his role with the Fire's charitable arm - the FireWorks for Kids Foundation - with whom he has served on the Board of Directors since the 2003 season and has served as a guest speaker for at various events throughout Chicagoland. With these efforts, combined with his work with the American Lung Association, the Gurnee branch of the PADS homeless shelter, and Thresholds - a charitable organization that assists mentally ill young adults - it is little wonder why the Princeton University graduate received the Chicago Fire Player of the Year award at the Fox Sports Chicago/March of Dimes this past winter.