As the Chicago Fire entered its ninth season of MLS play, the “Men in Red” faced the challenge of playing its first nine contests away from home to start the 2006 regular season. As construction of TOYOTA PARK came to a finish, the Fire looked to come together on the road through the opening months of April and May. The stretch of road contests began well for the Fire, rebounding from a 3-2 loss at FC Dallas on opening day to go undefeated in its next six contests, including wins against the New England Revolution and eventual MLS Cup Champion Houston Dynamo.
While collecting crucial points on the road throughout the beginning stretch of the season, a fractured right foot sidelined 2004 All-Star defender Jim Curtin. The loss of Curtin led to the eventual rise of rookie Dasan Robinson (pictured left), a 2006 Supplemental Draft Pick. Robinson quickly made his way into the starting lineup for Chicago and established himself as a key fixture in the Fire’s backline.
The month of June signaled the end of a nine-game road trip with a 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake and the completion of TOYOTA PARK, Major League Soccer’s fourth soccer-specific stadium. The Fire christened its new home with the June 11th match against the Revolution open exclusively to Bridgeview residents and season ticket holders. The 12,941 invited to attend witnessed TOYOTA PARK’s first goal in the 39th minute courtesy of forward Nate Jaqua – his first of two on the day – and rookie forward Calen Carr’s (pictured right) first professional goal in the 91+ minute. The home preview ended in a 3-3 draw with late goals from both sides.
The Fire saw defeat in two road games following its first taste of TOYOTA PARK, leaving the Fire in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference. Looking to earn its first home win of the season, the Fire battled the New York Red Bulls on June 25th in an exciting Grand Opening match at TOYOTA PARK. A sell-out crowd of 20,133 roared as Chicago captain Chris Armas scored in the 12th minute to put the home side up 1-0. Fire playmaker Thiago tallied in the 69th minute to double the lead at 2-0, a score that stood until the final whistle to give Chicago its first victory in over a month and the sizable crowd plenty of reasons to cheer.
The Grand Opening victory began a three-game winning streak that included a comeback win over Real Salt Lake on June 28th and a July 4th victory over Kansas City. Unfortunately, the winning streak came to a quick halt as the Fire struggled to earn July wins against New England, Brimstone Cup rival FC Dallas, DC, and Columbus.
The “Men in Red” found time to collect a pair of firsts at 71st & Harlem during their hectic summer stretch. TOYOTA PARK hosted its first-ever international friendly on July 12th, and a festive crowd saw the Fire fall late 2-1 to Mexican power Club America. The Fire also hosted its first “Ring of Fire” ceremony at the new stadium on July 22nd and inducted former Fire President/General Manager Peter Wilt (pictured below, right) as the fourth member into the club’s unique hall-of-fame. To kick off the month of August, the world of Major League Soccer turned to Bridgeview, as TOYOTA PARK hosted the 2006 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game against two-time defending Premiership champion Chelsea FC. The MLS XI used a second half goal from Dwayne De Rosario to record a stunning 1-0 win in the annual showcase event that brought a record 21,210 fans to TOYOTA PARK.
The Fire’s first game of August came against former head coach Bob Bradley and Chivas USA, who used a late penalty kick to down the Fire 2-1. The Fire rebounded from the loss quickly, turning its attention to Kansas City in the next two matches. The “Men in Red” dispatching the Wizards 2-0 in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on August 14th and followed the victory with a 3-0 win in regular season play two days later.
A scheduling quirk gave the Fire a second straight back-to-back scenario, this time against New England, with forward Andy Herron taking center stage. The Costa Rican’s goal on August 20th helped the “Men in Red” continue to defeat their Gillette Stadium rivals with a 1-0 road win. Herron’s pair of goals three days later at TOYOTA PARK saw the Fire through to a heated 2-1 victory in the Open Cup Quarterfinals.
Robinson’s first career goal against Colorado was the lone tally in a 1-0 victory that marked Chicago’s fifth straight win across all competitions. The 2-2 draw against Houston on August 30th saw the squad’s roller coaster season even at 8-8-8. The game would also see the return of Matt Pickens (pictured left), a third year goalkeeper who stepped in for Zack Thornton after he suffered a quadriceps strain during the match. Pickens made his first MLS start in over a year on Sept. 3 against the Red Bulls, making seven saves to help Chicago to a 2-1 win and a four-point lead over New England for the second spot in the East.
After climbing past .500 for the first time since May, the Fire was set to face D.C. United in the Open Cup Semifinals. After a listless first half, the Fire came alive in the second half, downing the Eastern Conference leaders in a heavy 3-0 defeat. The second half also brought a red card for Armas, meaning the Fire would have to take the field for its fifth Open Cup Final minus its captain.
Chicago used the momentum from the semifinal victory to win three of its next four MLS regular season games before meeting the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Open Cup Final on September 27th at TOYOTA PARK. A fast start with goals from Jaqua and Herron in the first 16 minutes gave the Fire a comfortable lead going into the second half. Galaxy forward Alan Gordon scored in the 51st minute to give the game a tense final 40 minutes, but Thiago’s finish on an 88th minute breakaway put the game out of reach. The 3-1 victory made the Fire the fifth team in the U.S. Open Cup’s 93-year history to win the tournament four times.
With the conclusion of its run in the Open Cup, the Fire also ended its most successful run of the season, a daunting, yet successful 37-day stretch in which the club went 11-1-1 against MLS foes. For his 6-2-0 record and high-flying heroics since coming in at the beginning of the month, Pickens was named MLS’s Honda Player of the Month for September. Following the impressive Open Cup performance, the Fire dropped two contests against the New York and Columbus but closed the regular season with a 3-2 victory over D.C. United on October 15.
For its 2006 MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal Series, the third-seeded Fire took on an all-too-familiar foe, the second-seeded New England Revolution, the rivals’ fifth postseason meeting in seven seasons. Game one of the series marked Chicago’s first-ever MLS Cup Playoff contest at TOYOTA PARK and gave Justin Mapp (pictured left) his first career playoff goal. Mapp’s goal was enough to give the Fire a one-goal advantage heading into game two of the series.
In the second game of the semifinal series, Jaqua gave the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute from a Mapp cross, resulting in a 2-0 lead for Chicago in the aggregate series. Revs striker Taylor Twellman equalized the match in the 41st minute while Pat Noonan scored in the 58th minute to even the series at 2-2. Both teams battled through the end of regulation and overtime, but the match would continue into penalty kicks. Revs’ goalkeeper Matt Reis made a pair of saves and converted a kick of his own to lead New England to a 4-2 PK win, helping the Revolution end the Fire season for a third straight year.
The 2006 season brought recognition for a trio of “Men in Red,” with Armas named as one of three finalists for MLS Comeback Player of the Year, Mapp receiving FIFA Fair Play honors, and Dave Sarachan (pictured right) named Coach of the Year. Mapp enjoyed a breakout season in 2006 and became the first Fire player since 2003 to be named to the RadioShack MLS Best XI team. The versatile midfielder should play a key role for the Fire as the club heads into its 10th MLS season and protects its new home at TOYOTA PARK.