When the Fire host FC Dallas at Soldier Field on Sunday evening, it should prove to be anything but a sleepy midseason matchup. Sure, there will be plenty to play for on the surface, as the hosts could be playing for a share of first place in the Eastern Conference come kickoff, while the visitors will be playing to keep their advantage atop the Western Conference. But there will be added motivation for both sides when they take the field, as Sunday's meeting could wrap up the proceedings of the 2005 edition of the league's oldest established rivalry - the Brimstone Cup.
This marks the fifth season that the Chicago and Dallas based sides will do battle for the Brimstone Cup, the series having officially started with the awarding of the trophy following the 2001 regular season. After a revision in the Brimstone Cup charter, the Cup is now awarded annually to the squad that collects the most standings points in their contests during the MLS regular season, with potential MLS Cup Playoff and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup contests serving as tiebreakers should the regular season series end in a stalemate.
FC Dallas won the first meeting between the clubs 2-1 at the Cotton Bowl in the season opener on April 2. The Fire must win Sunday night's clash on the lakefront and take another meeting against the side that "Tex" built during the postseason or Open Cup if they want to keep FC Dallas from hoisting the Cup for a fourth straight season. The Brimstone Cup charter states that, should the two teams finish their series tied, the previous year's winner will retain the rights to the Cup. After Chicago won the inaugural Cup in 2001, Dallas took the season series in 2002, retained it after drawing even with Chicago in 2003 and kept it after sweeping last year's season series with the "Men in Red."
With no natural geographical rival and a two-year lag behind the rest of the league, the Fire went without a real rivalry during their inaugural year in 1998. But take the familiarity factor that comes with being inter-conference opponents and throw in a contentious 1999 Western Conference Semifinal series (6-3 on points by Dallas) that involved more than a few scuffles - and Dema Kovalenko's infamous tackle that broke the leg of Dallas defender Brandon Pollard - and the seed was planted. The following year, both teams moved to the new Central Division, but they brought their newfound dislike with each other along for the ride and, voila, a rivalry was born.
While the wisdom that comes with age and roster overhauls might have mellowed the series in recent years, the even 14-14-2 record for both sides across their regular season and tournament matchups brings into focus just how evenly things have played out between the two clubs - a must for any real set of rivals. But the intensity in the Brimstone Cup might not come on the field, but from the stands, as it was the fans of both clubs that came together to create the trophy. It is those supporters that create the rules, award the trophy and, in the end, keep fanning the flames of the league's first true rivalry.
The following are five of the best of the 30 games contested between Chicago and Dallas - five reasons that make the rivalry what still is today.
- October 23, 1999 - Chicago 4, Dallas 0 - Western Conference Semifinals, Game 2
The match started as a blowout, with the Fire taking a 3-0 lead into the half and substitute Kovalenko adding a fourth just one minute into the second stanza. But it was Kovalenko's poor challenge that broke the leg of Pollard that nearly turned the game into a knockdown, drag-out affair - a play that indeed escalated the rivalry to another level.
- October 27, 1999 - Dallas 3, Chicago 2 - Western Conference Semifinals, Game 3
A "do-or-die" contest that had it all. Add the emotion boiling over from the Kovalenko-Pollard incident just days earlier to the intensity of a series-ending playoff contest and you get the obvious - 44 fouls and nine yellow cards between the two sides. But there was also some great soccer played in between the whistles, with Chicago scoring twice in the first five minutes to seemingly deflate the Burn at home. But the Cotton Bowl came alive in the second half, as a Chad Deering goal in the 54th minute brought life back to Dallas before late goals from Jorge Rodriguez (84) and Ariel Graziani (86) gave Dallas a dramatic come-from-behind win and a 6-3 series victory.
- August 9, 2000 - Chicago 5, Dallas 1 - Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals
It was the "Josh Wolff Show" on this day, as the then Fire forward produced the first four-goal game in club history, helping the "Men in Red" advance to the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup en route to their second crown in the competition.
- September 29, 2001 - Chicago 2, Dallas 0 - MLS Cup Quarterfinals, Game 3
The Fire take the inaugural Brimstone Cup with a shutout victory that, more importantly, pushed the "Men in Red" into the semifinals of the 2003 MLS Cup Playoffs. Captain Peter Nowak had two assists for the Fire in the match on goals by Chris Armas and Kovalenko.
- September 20, 2003 - Dallas 2, Chicago 0
It was a late-season meeting in 2003 between the eventual Supporters Shield winners from Chicago and a team that would post the worst season in Dallas franchise history - but the tables were turned on the Fire in a 2-0 loss that could have been the most surprising result of the MLS season up to that point. Goals from newcomer Toni Nhleko and Eddie Johnson lifted the Burn to an upset victory and a tie in the season series with the Fire that allowed Dallas to retain the Brimstone Cup in 2003.