Feat to the Fire
Sparked by a Web-surfing Pole, expansion Chicago won MLS Cup '98
Peter Nowak, the Chicago Fire's playmaking midfielder, is a
four-hour-a-day Internet addict. One night last November, Nowak,
a 34-year-old native of Pabianice, Poland, sat down at his
computer in Munich and logged on to the MLS Web site. He clicked
to the Fire's page and clicked again to the bio of Bob Bradley,
the coach of Chicago, an expansion franchise that would debut in
April. There he saw that Bradley had played and coached at
Princeton and that he had been an assistant with two-time MLS
champion D.C. United. "I got the feeling," Nowak says, "that he
was very smart and would know how to win the championship."
Win the championship? With an expansion team? If Nowak had
searched the Net a little longer, he no doubt would have learned
that no team in modern U.S. pro sports history had ever won a
title in its inaugural season. That changed on Sunday. Before a
crowd of 51,350 at the Rose Bowl, Nowak was a certifiable
Pole-tergeist, terrorizing United's vaunted defense and handing
out two assists in the Fire's 2-0 upset victory in MLS Cup '98.
How do you start from scratch, march undefeated through the
playoffs and win the championship in less than a year? First,
you take the initiative. Unlike many MLS coaches, who wait for
the league to bring foreign stars to them, Bradley traveled to
Germany last December and met with Nowak. He had been impressed
with Nowak's play for Poland in World Cup qualifying and for
1860 Munich in the Bundesliga. Bradley and Nowak hit it off
instantly, and MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati flew a few
weeks later to negotiate the deal. Says Bradley, "I felt at that
point that we had a great player and a great starting point for
building a team."
Nowak's signing (and subsequently that of two other Polish
players, forward Roman Kosecki and midfielder Jerzy Podbrozny)
certainly made sense for Chicago, which has more Polish-speaking
residents than any city in the world except Warsaw, but the Fire
also made several other savvy moves along the way. When asked on
Sunday to name Chicago's three biggest acquisitions, Bradley
paused for a long time before citing Nowak, Lubos Kubik and
Chris Armas. In February the Fire picked up Kubik, 34, a Czech
sweeper who possesses excellent ball skills and would win MLS
defender of the year honors. A month earlier it had traded two
players and an allocated player to be named later to the Los
Angeles Galaxy for Armas, 26, a defensive midfielder, and star
Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos.
Bradley's trio played a significant role in the MLS Cup victory.
Kubik started a brilliant four-pass sequence that led to the
Fire's first goal, while Nowak made an ankle-breaking cut
against United's top defender, Eddie Pope, that freed him to set
up the second goal. Armas merely decided the match by shackling
United playmaker and league MVP Marco Etcheverry. "He's tricky,
so you try to stay close, beat him to balls and make him play
the ball backwards," Armas said afterward. "If I can get him to
lay the ball off, then my job is done."
Chicago goalkeeper Zach Thornton made three sprawling saves in
the second half to preserve the shutout. Certainly Bradley's
boldest decision of the year was to award Thornton, 25, the
starting job ahead of Campos just before the playoffs (causing
Campos to leave the Fire early to join his Mexican team, UNAM
Pumas). A 6'3", 210-pound former New York/New Jersey MetroStars
backup who attended Loyola College in Baltimore, Thornton says
he would have played pro lacrosse instead of soccer had there
been a viable league. While Campos was at the World Cup,
Thornton took full advantage of his absence. He seized the
starting job and won the MLS goalkeeper of the year award with a
record 1.17 goals-against average.
"As a coach you have to be very honest about doing what's best
for the team, because your credibility is based on decisions
that you make," Bradley said. He was referring to the Campos
controversy, but he could just as easily have been describing
everything that had happened since that day in Munich last
December. Nowak, after all, got it from the start: Bradley is
very smart. He knows how to win championships.
The U.S. Team
BIG CHANGES ARE ON THE WAY
On Tuesday, United coach Bruce Arena was to be named coach of
the U.S. team. How dramatically will he alter a side that
finished 32nd out of 32 countries at World Cup '98? Let us count
the changes. Arena says that while he plans to keep a few
veterans, there will be a "revolving door of new players"
auditioning over the next two years for the team that will
represent the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup. "There's a group of
players who have a lot of potential but no [international]
experience," he says. "In 1998 and '99, those are the ones we'll
The new blood, Arena says, will include several players who
appeared on Sunday. From United, he plans to call up the
league's rookie of the year, Ben Olsen, 21, along with fellow
midfielders Tony Sanneh, 27, and Richie Williams, 28, and
defender Carlos Llamosa, 29, a Colombian native who became a
U.S. citizen last week. Arena will tap the Fire's talent at both
ends of the field, summoning forwards Ante Razov, 24, and Josh
Wolff, 21, as well as Thornton. Some or all of these players
could participate in the Americans' first friendly under Arena,
against Australia on Nov. 6 in San Jose.
It's about time that selection to the national team was based on
merit instead of reputation, and Arena's shrewd negotiating--he
demanded and received a four-year contract through World Cup
2002--gives him the job security to experiment. "It doesn't help
to win games in '98 and '99," Arena said last week. "You need to
start winning games in 2001."
MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY?
Armas, who capped a breakout season by being named all-MLS, was
included in Arena's list of new faces. But there's a sticking
point: He may never be eligible to don a U.S. jersey.
In 1993 Armas, a Bronx native whose mother is Puerto Rican,
played in five games for Puerto Rico in an obscure tournament
called the Shell Caribbean Cup. FIFA, soccer's international
governing body, stipulates that a player cannot represent a
nation after having played for another in a FIFA-sanctioned
One crucial question remains: Was the 1993 Shell Caribbean Cup
an official competition or an exhibition? If it was an
exhibition, Armas would be eligible for the U.S. team. "We're
getting a ruling within the next week from FIFA," says Gulati, a
member of the U.S. Soccer Federation's executive committee.
Armas, a former star at Adelphi, says that in 1993 he never
thought he would get a chance to play for the U.S. "If I'm not
eligible, I'll regret that," he says. Then again, Armas could
become an advocate for expanding the Union. Puerto Rican
statehood would enable him to play for the U.S. immediately.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Rugged tackling from Razov (12) helped the Fire shut down John Harkes and D.C. United.[John Harkes and Ante Razov in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK By kicking off his career for Puerto Rico, Armas has imperiled his U.S. eligibility. [Chris Armas in game]