While Soldier Field underwent renovation, the Chicago Fire opened up its fifth season at Cardinal Stadium at North Central College in Naperville. The 2002 campaign found the “Men in Red” fighting through a year wrought with adversity both on the field and off, as they pushed to make a fifth consecutive postseason appearance.
Prior to the start of the team’s fifth MLS campaign, the Fire was paired with 2001 Guatemalan Champion CSD Municipal in the FC Champions Cup Round of 16. Chicago defeated the Central American powerhouse 1-0 in Guatemala City and 2-0 in Naperville, advancing to the quarterfinals of the prestigious tournament. The opponent, 2002 Mexican League runner up Monarcas Morelia, won the first leg on June 30th in Morella, Michoacan. Despite the Fire’s 2-1 win on July 10th at Cardinal Stadium, the team lost the round on a 3-2 aggregate score line.
Injuries plagued the Fire throughout the 2002 season, as the club lost many of its top players, including midfielder Peter Nowak and forward Hristo Stoitchkov. In the March 30th loss to D.C. United, defender Evan Whitfield left the game with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) as the Fire found itself in a four-way tie for first in the conference. The following week saw injuries to both Carlos Bocanegra and C.J. Brown with the Fire falling to the Galaxy 1-2 in overtime. Just after a 2-2 draw with New England in the Fire’s home opener at Cardinal Field, midfielder Chris Armas suffered a season-ending knee injury in May while playing for the U.S. Men’s National Team during its preparation for the FIFA World Cup. In spite of losing multiple players to injuries and national team call-ups, those able to take the field fought vigorously to tally some impressive wins and memorable moments in 2002.
Responding to a slew of early season injuries, Ante Razov led the Fire to an impressive 6-1 win over Milwaukee in an April 14th friendly match. Razov put on an astounding show, scoring five of the six Fire goals, the most in a single game by any player in Fire history. As the Fire returned to regular season play on April 20th, Jesse Marsch played his 10,000th minute for Chicago while Kelly Gray scored his first MLS goal in the 2-0 win over the MetroStars. The “Men in Red” remained in second place in the conference with a 2-2 draw with New England in the April 27 home opener at Cardinal Stadium.
As preparation for the FIFA World Cup rendered Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, and Josh Wolff unavailable for the Fire, both new faces and seasoned veterans stepped up to help the team break free from second place in the conference. The May 4th game against D.C. saw midfielder Craig Capano become the second youngest player ever to appear in a MLS match as the Fire defeated United 3-0 and moved to first place in the Eastern Conference (The Fire joined the Eastern Conference with league reorganization after the 2001 season). Although the following week brought a loss for the Fire and signaled the first time the Fire has been held scoreless at home in 20 games (since July 15, 2000 vs. Tampa Bay), Razov would lead the Fire to an exciting 3-1 win over New England on May 15th. Razov served as the lone goal scorer, pulling off a masterful hat trick with goals in the 34th, 54th, and 73rd minutes of the match. Razov earned MLS Player of the Week honors for his performance in week 9.
The win also helped the Fire sit alone in first place and marked the first time Chicago beat the Revs on the road since their first meeting in 1998. While Razov remained the leading scorer for the Fire, midfielder Jason Moore and defender Jim Curtin added to the Fire goal tally. Moore notched his first career goal against his former team in the July 4th, 2-3 loss to Colorado while Curtin scored his first in the 3-0 victory over the MetroStars on July 27th. A second consecutive overtime victory for the Fire was secured on a dazzling shot by World Cup sensation DaMarcus Beasley, whose game-winning tally earned the Fire a 3-2 win over the MetroStars on July 13th at Giants Stadium.
A season-high 15,191 fans would see the Fire record its largest margin of victory in 2002 with a 5-1 pounding of Kansas City Wizards on August 14th at Cardinal Stadium. All five goals in the match came from different goal scorers. The team effort brought goals for Beasley, Josh Wolff, Stoitchkov, Dema Kovalenko, and Razov. The decisive win also resulted in an unfortunate injury, forcing Wolff to leave the game with a torn ACL in his right knee.
A 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew on September 22nd clinched a playoff spot for the Fire in the last game of the 2002 MLS season. The legendary Nowak scored his 100th career point in the 72nd minute off a Kovalenko cross in front of another sold-out crowd at Cardinal Stadium. With the win, Bob Bradley marked a major milestone, becoming the All-Time Winningest Coach in Major League Soccer.
The Fire amassed an 11-13-4 record and 37 points in 2002 earning third place in the Eastern Conference. Despite the team’s hardships, the Fire managed to clinch the seventh seed in the MLS Cup playoffs, marking the club’s fifth consecutive postseason appearance.
The postseason saw the Fire battle hard and eventually fall to MLS Cup finalist New England in the quarterfinals. After losing the first game in the “First to Five” series 0-2, the Fire exploded in the second match to capture a 2-1 come from behind win on a stunning shot by an injured Ante Razov, whose tallies on the night tied a Chicago Fire playoff record. Another 0-2 loss in the decisive Game Three gave New England the 6-3 series win and extinguished the Fire’s hopes of a 2002 MLS Championship.
Though Chicago defeated the Milwaukee Rampage in a friendly match 6-1 early in the season, the Fire could not repeat the same dominating game play that characterized the early win. A frustrating 1-0 loss to the Rampage on July 17th stopped the Fire in the third round of the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
All-time Fire scoring leader Ante Razov was crowned the Fire/Budweiser Scoring Champion for the fourth time and ended the season fourth on the Budweiser MLS Scoring Chart with 36 points on 14 goals and 8 assists. Chicago’s stalwart in betweenthe pipes, goalkeeper Zack Thornton, continued to amaze in goal with a 1.23 GAA in 27 games and was named the 2002 Fire/Honda MVP and 2002 Fire Defender of the Year for his efforts while star defender Carlos Bocanegra was named the 2002 ADT Defender of the Year. Four “Men in Red”- Beasley, Wolff, Bocanegra, and Kovalenko- were named MLS All-Stars for the 2002 season.