Fire leaves United in ruins Defense, breaks end D.C.'s reign, 2-0

October 26, 1998|By PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

LOS ANGELES -- The new kids on the block proved they are all right.

The Chicago Fire earned its place as the most successful expansion team in the history of American professional sports, capturing Major League Soccer's championship with a 2-0 victory over two-time defending champion D.C. United yesterday at the Rose Bowl before 51,350.

The Fire became just the second expansion team to reach a league playoff final, and the first to win it all.

The only other team to advance to a playoff final in its first season was the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues in 1967-68. However, it was a given that an expansion team would reach the Stanley Cup Finals that year because the NHL had expanded from six to 12 teams and formed a division made up of expansion teams, guaranteeing one would reach the finals.

The Montreal Canadiens swept the Blues that year.

Many soccer experts expected D.C. United to have about as much trouble with the Fire yesterday.

"That was ridiculous," said Chicago standout Francis Okaroh, who had been New England's defender of the year for two seasons before being exposed in the expansion draft. "A lot of people gave us no chance. Shows what they know."

D.C. United had set the standard in MLS during its three-year history, capturing the first two MLS Cup championships, the 1997 U.S. Open Cup, the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup and establishing a record for regular-season victories this season.

Washington had also trounced Chicago, 3-1 and 4-1, in their two previous meetings.

"Didn't mean a thing," Okaroh said with a sly smile. "We had a player sent off in the first one, and we had never played them with all of our best players."

The Fire was built around a base of Eastern Europeans and good selections in the expansion draft. The architect was Coach of the Year Bob Bradley, who learned a great deal at the right side of United's Bruce Arena.

Bradley, Princeton's coach from 1984 to 1995, served as an assistant to Arena at Virginia and with D.C. United.

Yesterday marked the first time Bradley had beaten his mentor. Their teams also met in the 1993 NCAA semifinals, with Arena's Cavaliers defeating Bradley's Tigers, 3-1.

This time, Bradley's Fire gave him the championship.

"We had a good game plan, and we knew if we stuck to it that there was no need to worry," said Okaroh. "Everyone knows that they're an explosive team. We knew that they were going to come hard at us in the first 10 minutes. If we could absorb it, then we'd be OK."

Washington did, indeed, come out fast. Chicago caught its first big break when Lubos Kubik, MLS's Defender of the Year, got away with a late challenge against Marco Etcheverry, the league's MVP, inside the box in the fourth minute. Referee Kevin Terry ignored all appeals for a penalty kick.

Chicago took a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute, with Jerzy Podbrozny getting the final touch in a series of passes from Peter Nowak and Ante Razov. Nowak and Podbrozny both had beaten the offside trap and ended up with a 2-on-0 against Tom Presthus, D.C.'s third different goalkeeper in its three finals.

The Fire got another huge break when it scored against the run of play to take a 2-0 lead less than a minute before halftime. Polish international Nowak, the game's MVP, was credited with a goal when his shot deflected off teammate Henry Gutierrez, who looked offside.

"I applaud the Chicago Fire. They did what they had to do," said Arena, who is likely to be named U.S. national team coach as early as tomorrow. "They got the breaks and we didn't. There was the non-call on Etcheverry for a penalty, and their second goal was offside."

Bradley concurred: "When I say that we got the breaks, Bruce might have been right about those issues."

D.C. United played nearly the entire second half in Chicago's half, but could not capitalize against the composed and well-organized Fire defense.

Okaroh and C. J. Brown cut off feared strikers Roy Lassiter and Jaime Moreno's supply of balls, Chris Armas marked Etcheverry out of the second half and goalkeeper Zach Thornton (John Carroll, Loyola College) maintained command of his box, helping fulfill the encouraging words of his father, Ernest, who was at the match.

"I've always told him, 'I know you're the best goalkeeper in the world,' " Ernest Thornton said. "He's now getting to that point."

The son, who finished the match with eight saves, said the constant support "was always nice to hear. Parents always know what to say."

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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