Here’s a little-known fact. Despite being in the same conference for the majority of their existences, Kansas City and Chicago have only ever met once in the postseason: in the 2000 MLS Cup final.
The final was the culmination of an intriguing, season-long philosophical clash. Bob Gansler’s KC side was built to defend. Bob Bradley’s Fire squad relished attacking. Both were very good at what they did, and, inevitably, they battled all season for the Supporters Shield. When the dust settled, they were tied on points, but KC won the Shield by virtue of a better goal differential (+18 to +16).
And so it seemed only fitting that Chicago and KC would meet in the final that year.
On that October afternoon at RFK Stadium, Kansas City — known as the Wizards at that point — got a goal from Miklos Molnar in the 11th minute and then held on for the win thanks to a blinding performance from goalkeeper Tony Meola. He made 10 saves on the day, and was named MVP as the club won its first (and so far only) MLS Cup trophy.
MLS Cup 2000: Miklos Molnar makes his mark
“I remember us just hammering them, and KC being KC and holding on, and Tony standing on his head,” recalls Josh Wolff, then a forward with the Fire and currently an assistant coach with D.C. United. “Rivalries typically spawn from big games. And that was a big moment. Obviously they got an early goal. A bit of a fluky goal, but nonetheless it was an important goal.”
Important, indeed. Once the goal went in, it was almost inevitable that KC would win. Defense wasn’t just their strength; it was their whole philosophy. They had some impressive attacking weapons, including Molnar, Mo Johnston, Preki, Chris Henderson, and Chris Klein, but they scored only 47 goals on the season, which put them in the middle of the pack. Preki posted an impressive 15 assists, but no one on the roster had more than 12 goals to his name.
MLS Cup 2000: Tony Meola is the Great Wall
In back, however, they had Meola — who became that year the only goalkeeper ever to be named MLS MVP. He and his defense, anchored by holding midfielder Kerry Zavagnin and backline mainstays Peter Vermes, Matt McKeon, and Brandon Prideaux, were nearly unbeatable. Vermes was named MLS Defender of the Year at the end of the season, as KC conceded only 29 goals in 32 matches, which comes out to a .90 goals against average, to this day the 5th all-time lowest GAA.
So in other words, in the final, all KC needed — perhaps all they really wanted — was that one goal.
“That whole season, we prided ourselves on defending well and defending as a group,” Prideaux says. “The game mirrored what we did all year. That was get an early lead and then try to defend keep that lead. We were able to do that. Of course, it wasn’t easy against that Chicago team.”
That Chicago team was the philosophical opposite of KC. They scored in bunches, and led the league in scoring with 67 goals. Their star up top was Ante Razov, who hit 18 goals that year. He was joined by a menagerie of Eastern European talent, including Bulgarian firebrand Hristo Stoitchkov (9 G, 7 A), Ukrainian battler Dema Kovalenko (10 G, 5 A), and Polish playmaker Peter Nowak (5 G, 14 A). Wolff, limited by injuries, still hit 7 goals and 5 assists.
But in the final, all that prowess just couldn’t break through.
“Those are tough ones to look back on and swallow,” Wolff says. “It was a game we certainly should have won, but that's what finals are like. They're tight, they're tough. You've got to take advantage of your opportunities and we didn't on the day. That's a tough one to remember.”
Considering today’s celebration of attack-minded play, many would argue that the better team lost. But for KC, there was a pride and a certain beauty to their style.
“I wouldn’t say it was an upset,” Prideaux says. “We had a different method of playing than them. Give them credit. They had a good team, but we had a really good team.”
Both Wolff and Prideaux went on to suit up for the opposite side later in their careers. Wolff spent seven seasons in Kansas City, from 2003 to 2010, scoring 43 regular season goals and helping them win the 2004 US Open Cup — against Chicago, of course.
After a few years with D.C. and one in Colorado, Prideaux finished his career with the Fire, making 46 appearances in 2008 and 2009. When he was there, his young son was born: Prideaux says his son is a Fire fan.
I caught up with Prideaux as he was driving with his family from his home in Denver to Kansas City. He will visit Sporting Park for the first time on Saturday afternoon, when Sporting KC host the Fire. He wants to see the stadium, visit with friends at both clubs.
I asked him who he will root for, and he responded like an alumnus of two clubs probably should.
“You know how it goes: I’ll root for a good game,” he says, chuckling. “I mean, I’ve got the equipment manager for Chicago getting me a jersey for my son. Then I’ve got some friends in Kansas City getting me some tickets. So I’ve got to stay kind of bipartisan.”
Greg Lalas is the editor in chief of MLSsoccer.com