A Cinderella story gives welcome exposure to the fledgling American competiton, writes Nick Patience

Although the championship game of the third season of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US didn’t quite go the way most observers thought it would, you won’t hear any complaints from the soccer authorities, who are still struggling to get widespread recognition for a sport that ranks fifth at best in most sport fans’ eyes.

The Chicago Fire, which a year ago did not exist, upset Washington’s DC Utd 2-0 in the final of the MLS Cup on October 25th in front of 51,350 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. In US parlance, that makes them the first expansion team to win a major league title in their first season of existence. Many might think that the league would be disappointed – or even embarrassed – that its title can be won by a team assembled so recently. Not on your life.

The Fire, like the other 11 teams that comprise the MLS, are the result of years of planning, focus-groups and consultation with marketing wallahs to create an entertainment “package” suited to their local audience. So Chicago, with the largest concentration of Polish people anywhere outside Warsaw, gets three experienced Polish footballers to add to their squad. Piotr Nowak – acquired from 1860 Munich – was the hero of the hour, running DC’s defence ragged, setting up the first goal and taking the shot that was deflected in for the second, just before half time.

Chicago, like each MLS club, is permitted five foreigners on their roster of 22 players – although that is being reduced to four next season. The rest are made up of young players straight out of college and those that played at one of the ten teams that made up the MLS for the first two years, before “franchises”- as they are unfortunately known – were established in Miami and Chicago for this season.

Rather like a handicapper in horse racing, parity is what the MLS authorities are looking for. Through the draft system, whereby the worst team from the previous year gets the first choice of the best college players for next year, and by rejigging of rosters, teams like the Colorado Rapids can bounce back from the worst record in the inaugural 1996 season to reaching the final against DC Utd the following year.

If the authorities waited until grass-roots organizations had formed themselves into coherent football clubs, the game would never get off the ground in the States and the TV companies certainly would not be interested. As it was, DC Utd entered the MLS Cup final as the favourites to win their third title and begin some sort of dynasty (as the American media were calling it, in their desperate urge to create a history for the fledgling league), however short-lived. DC had, after all, beaten Chicago twice during the regular season, both times coming from behind.

DC Utd, along with the Los Angeles Galaxy, played by far the best football in their respective conferences (eastern and western) and a final between those two would have been an MLS marketing man’s dream, especially as it was to be played in the Rose Bowl,the site of the 1994 World Cup final. But Chicago spoiled that notion, dumping LA out of the competition, beating them twice in the western conference final best-of-three series.

DC Utd’s feats were engineered by the coach, Bruce Arena, who led his side out for the last time on October 25th as he was appointed coach of the national team two days later, replacing Steve Sampson, who led the US to last place in the World Cup in France and was pushed aside. Chicago’s coach Bob Bradley plied his trade under Arena at DC and the two have been friends since the early 1980s, which led to the bizarre situation of the two coaches standing with their arms round each other five minutes before the end of a cup final.

The MLS needs teams like LA and New York to succeed because, no disrespect to Columbus or Kansas City, that’s where the big bucks are. LA had a good first season, dominating its conference and losing to DC in the final 3-2 after being 2-0 up. In 1997 it got dumped out at the conference semi-final stages, but bounced back this year. New York has never done better than the semi-finals of the play-offs in 1996 and again this season, having finished last in its conference in the intervening year and it is now on its fourth coach in three years.

Beyond those two urban sprawls, Chicago and Washington are arguably the next two most important markets to the league. Chicago is the third largest metro region and Washington is where Bill and Hillary live. Washington’s sports fans could do with something to cheer about. With no wins and seven losses at the time of the MLS Cup, the Washington Redskins were having one of their worst starts to an NFL season. The basketball team regularly under-achieves and DC does not have a major league baseball team, somewhat bizarrely. So apart from the Capitals ice hockey team, which regularly reaches the playoffs, DC Utd, with two MLS championships, is something of a major success story in the capital city.

Chicago has had a better sporting tradition recently, what with the Bulls being arguably the world’s best basketball team and the Cubs baseball team reaching the playoffs, so the fledgling Fire has a bit more competition in its home town. Bradley, speaking after the game, clearly gets it and has the marketing-speak to boot: “I’ve always said that to gain credibility in any marketplace, you must compete for a championship. Those are the kinds of things we’ve talked about in the locker room and hopefully that is something that the people in Chicago will respect.”

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month

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