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.
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