Seattle Sounders FC and the Chicago Fire will meet today at Toyota Park, taking one step toward settling which is the better team.
But the issue that might never be decided is how these Sounders compare to the 1998 Chicago Fire, which staked its so–far–unchallenged claim as Major League Soccer’s best first–year team by winning that season’s Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.
The Sounders started drawing comparisons by winning their first three games. And their current 4–2 record is the best ever by an MLS expansion team after six games – better even than the 1998 Fire.
“It wasn’t just we were the best team from the beginning, like maybe you’d say last year with Columbus,” said Frank Klopas, who played with the 1998 Fire and now serves as the club’s technical director. “We won two, we lost (five), then we went on a (12–game) winning streak. All along we believed that we had the players to win it all.”
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Klopas credits Bob Bradley, who coached the Fire for its first five seasons and now coaches the U.S. men’s national team.
“The best thing about the team in ’98 – what Bob did so well – was manage the personalities, manage the team as a whole,” Klopas said. “It’s not easy, when you have good players, to keep everyone happy in a season. I think he did a good job of (convincing the team) that when you win, it benefits everyone as a whole. We bought into that. Our ultimate goal was to win the double, which we did.”
Juggling an abundance of talented players isn’t a skill most expansion team coaches need. But it’s one of the similarities Klopas sees between the original Fire and the current Sounders.
“If I can look at comparisons ... I think with Seattle you have a quality head coach,” Klopas said. “I first met Sigi (Schmid) before the ’94 World Cup when he was one of the assistant coaches, and I always liked him as a coach. He ran great training sessions, he knew how to manage players and he had a very good eye for talent and for young players. That’s the key. You see how the Seattle team is playing.”
As with most issues involving teams of different eras, direct comparisons are difficult.
MLS was in only its third season in 1998, and the expansion to Chicago and Miami increased the league only to a dozen teams.
Klopas believes the teams were better then because there were fewer rosters to stock. However, the existing teams also had less of a head start.
“The league was much different then,” said Schmid, who was hired into MLS by the Los Angeles Galaxy the season after Chicago’s championship. “They started off with a great nucleus of foreign players. When you have Peter Nowak and you had Lubos Kubik you probably had two of the top four or five players in the league from Year 1 and you add (talent through trades) and then they had a very good draft – C.J. Brown and Zack Thornton and guys like that became starters. So they hit on all three of those levels.”
The Sounders have followed the same formula with international signings such as Fredy Montero and Freddie Ljungberg, trades for players such as Tyrone Marshall, and draft picks such as Steve Zakuani.
The teams shared one other trait. Klopas said Bradley set the bar high from the start. And Schmid says the Sounders organization has been equally unwilling to follow any script that says new clubs must stumble through their early years.
“We don’t look upon ourselves as an expansion team,” Schmid said. “We look upon ourselves as a good soccer team and a team that is going to get better as we have more time together.”
Ljungberg practiced with his teammates Friday and joined them on their flight to Chicago. He had been excused over the past week so that he could attend his grandmother’s funeral in Sweden. ... The Sounders have won a coin toss that will allow them to host their next U.S. Open Cup match. That game against the Colorado Rapids will be played at Starfire Sports Stadium, likely later this month. Time, date and ticket information will be announced. The winner will advance to the Open Cup round of 16.
Don Ruiz, 253–597–8808
SOUNDERS FC GAMEDAY
Seattle Sounders FC (4-2-0; 12 pts.) At Chicago Fire (2-0-4; 10 pts.)
When: 5:30 p.m., Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
TV: KONG 6/16. Radio: 97.3-FM, and in Spanish on 1210 AM.
Head to head: This is the first meeting. The Fire will visit Seattle on July 25.
Statistical leaders. For Seattle, G: 3 Fredy Montero; A: 3 Osvaldo Alonso; SH: 18 Montero; SOG: 6 Montero. For Chicago, G: 5 Brian McBride; A: 2 three players tied; SH: 18 Marco Pappa; SOG: 19 McBride.
Coach Sigi Schmid scouting report: “McBride is a quality experienced center forward. (Forward/midfielder Cuauhtemoc) Blanco is a difficult guy because he doesn’t really play a set position – he’s all over the place, so he’s hard to pick up. And the other eight guys work their rear ends off. They’re a good, hard-working team that has had a full year together pretty much as a group and they know their roles.”
Notes: Chicago has played to three consecutive draws but remains the only unbeaten team in MLS. ... The Fire has scored the most goals in MLS (12), while the Sounders have allowed the fewest (three). Kasey Keller hasn’t allowed a goal over the 389 minutes he has played this season. The Fire has allowed seven goals over its past three games. ... This game pairs the first two players of the month of this MLS season: Montero won the award in March, McBride in April. McBride also leads the MLS Golden Boot standings with five goals, including three over his past two games. ... Chicago returns 21 of the 24 players from its 13-10-7 team of last season, including MLS Best XI selections Blanco, Bakary Soumare and goalkeeper of the year Jon Busch. ... Both teams played midweek nonleague games. Seattle beat Real Salt Lake, 4-1, in a U.S. Open Cup play Tuesday, while Chicago lost, 2-1, in a friendly against Club America of Mexico. ... This is the first of three road games over the next four matches for Seattle.
Next: Noon May 10, Los Angeles Galaxy, Qwest Field; KONG 6/16 (Sold out).
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune