MLS Beat: Fire faces some burning issues

Stadium options and personnel changes will set future course

A month into the 2000 season, the Fire finally got a chance to play at home, and in beating Miami 1-0 on April 15 it shut down its opponent with a rigid defense.

The Fire captured the double in 1998 with a stifling defense and opportunistic attack. To challenge for the crown in 2000, it must meld the best of the past with the brightest aspects of its present, for its future is uncertain.

The contract of Coach Bob Bradley expires at the end of the season, and his desire to rejoin Bruce Arena at U.S. Soccer remains. Hristo Stoitchkov's commitment to the league and to the team is for this season only. Midfielder Peter Nowak and libero Lubos Kubik are not expected to return in 2001.

And as operator-investor Philip Anschutz and General Manager Peter Wilt watched their team prevail on a lush Soldier Field surface quite unlike the rutted mess of a year ago, through their minds swirled statements and recommendations and ideas germinated the day before at three separate meetings with various governmental entities. Topic: Where to play.

Soldier Field, which was built in 1924 and named in honor of those who served in World War I, will be demolished when the wrecking ball crashes down this year or next if the Bears' project clears political and legislative hurdles.

Only the distinctive pillars and facing will survive.

In the next 12 months, Anschutz must determine the future home of the Fire. He can either retain his ties with the NFL and play in a rebuilt Soldier Field, or he can opt for a "Fire House" - complete with a red brick motif at the main entrance, according to those who've seen renderings - that will seat approximately 20,000 fans and lend a permanence to MLS as yet unknown in a major market.

Why would an MLS investor subject fans to football lines and schedule changes and oppressive tenancy and NFL arrogance? Money, of course.

Unlike the take-it-and-like-it conditions imposed by stadium authorities upon MLS teams the first few years, recent deals - such as the one struck by the Mutiny at Raymond James Stadium - are less onerous.

Soldier Field vs. Fire House

A fair lease and reasonable share of ancillary revenues - parking, concessions, etc., - could make more economic sense than the debt service and operating expenses incurred by building a stadium at a cost of $40 million to $50 million.

Signs of Fire-Soldier Field dTtente were present at the opener. For the first time, a Dalmatian - animal of choice on most fire trucks - was permitted on the field.

"We snuck one onto the field at a game last year, in disguise," said Wilt. "They found him, and made us take him outside."

The playing surface, a disgrace a year ago, drew praise.

"There was grass where there was supposed to be grass, it was cut short, and it was flat," said midfielder Chris Armas.

Asked which way the winds of change are blowing in the Soldier Field vs. Fire House debate, Wilt replied, "It changes every day."

The changes Bradley has brought into the team for 2000 are radical in the case of Stoitchkov, subtler in other ways.

UCLA product Carlos Bocanegra got his first start as a pro, and in smothering Diego Serna he showed glimpses of those tools necessary to replace Francis Okaroh. Zach Thornton, Rookie of the Year in 1998 and Sophomore Slumper of 1999, showed sharpness and zeal in his first start of the season.

Skeptics can correctly point out the Fusion arrived in Chicago mired in a goalless funk, and the Fire had already surrendered 11 goals. Still, the resolute man-marking of C.J. Brown and Bocanegra and a few key saves from Thornton sparked memories of 1998.

Bradley also has veteran defender Tom Soehn, who has played as libero as well as man-marker.

The newest face is Mike Sorber, whom Bradley believes can bring a touch of patience into the Fire midfield, where Armas bustles and Kubik sometimes bursts through to spark the attack.

"We've tended to give away balls at times, and Mike will help us with that," said Bradley. "He's a good passer, and he can help us hold the ball when we need to."

However, Sorber is a passive tackler, a far less forceful presence than Armas.

"We know we're going to miss Chris for U.S. Cup and World Cup qualifiers, and during the Olympics, if he's chosen as an over-age player," said Bradley. "To get a player like Mike really helps our team."

Hail to Hristo

If goal leakage continues, Sorber could be deployed alongside Armas, which would send Dema Kovalenko back to the bench unless a slot is available. Josh Wolff and DaMarcus Beasley are Olympic candidates.

Up front, the Fire's persona is now that of Stoitchkov, once nicknamed "Raging Bull" for his strength and volatile stubborness. What the moniker neglects is his impeccable touch, unerring passes and fearsome shot.

Put this bull in a china shop, and he's equally capable of nimbly dodging every obstacle as he is smashing through them.

In three of four games prior to that against the Fusion, Bradley deployed Stoitchkov as one of three forwards. Stoitchkov scored three goals, but the Fire lost all three games.

Against the Fusion, Kovalenko dropped back into midfield, from whence he often charged forward blindly. Stoitchkov, inevitably it seems, scored a goal, and just as inevitably, presented a teammate with a juicy scoring chance that was wasted.

He drilled a free kick that Fusion keeper Jeff Cassar parried right to the feet of Jesse Marsch, who bludgeoned it wide.

A week earlier in the heartbreaking 3-2 loss to D.C. at RFK, Stoitchkov curled an amazing 40-yard cross right onto the head of Ante Razov, who apparently was so astonished at the pace and precision of the pass he headed the ball right to keeper Tom Presthus.

"Everything about him is amazing," said Armas. "He plays with such passion, he can pass the ball 30, 40, 50, 60 yards on a dime, he scores incredible goals."

After scoring on a feed from Razov three minutes into the second half against Miami, Stoitchkov ran straight over to a section of Bulgarian fans and saluted them. As he did, he stared into a huge photo of his face - four feet tall, four feet high - that fans had displayed in tribute.

A crowd of 20,184 watched the Fire's opener, a figure that Wilt said included about 7,000 walk-ups. "I was really happy with the crowd until a few people asked me if I was disappointed," said Wilt.

Many will worship at the Shrine of Hristo this season. Yet the faces and the persona of this team will soon be starkly different.

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney

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