XI. Reasons This Is The Chicago Fire’s US World Cup Team

Chicago Fire logoThe United States World Cup Team in South Africa will have a distinctly Chicago Fire flavor.  In fact, one can make a strong case that the Fire has had more influence on this squad than any other single club has since five members of St. Louis Simpkins-Ford were on the 1950 US World Cup roster that upset England in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The reliance on Fire connected players and coaches will be an important factor to creating a unified team chemistry that will give the US its best chance of success.

Here are the XI. players and coaches that give the Fire even more influence on the 2010 US roster than Simpkins-Ford did on the 1950 US roster.  Listed after each name is the position with the US World Cup squad and the years affiliated with the Chicago Fire:

XI.     Michael Bradley, Central Midfielder, 1998-2003: He was only eight years old when he began kicking the ball around with the likes of Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Ante Razov and Chris Armas on the Chicago Fire training field.  Before he left the Fire for New Jersey at age 13 with his dad, Michael’s list of training partners included Eric Wynalda, Hristo Stoitchkov, current US teammates DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra and current US coaches Mike Sorber, Lubos Kubik and Jesse Marsch.  The son of the Fire’s first Head Coach and the current USMNT Coach, Bob Bradley,  never played a game in a Fire uniform, but he shined the players shoes, helped with equipment, discussed the team every day with the head coach and trained with the Fire before and after practice sessions throughout the team’s first five seasons.

The next four players never played for the Fire’s first team, but they were recruited by and played under current Chicago Fire Assistant Coach Mike Matkovich with the Fire’s PDL team, the Chicago Fire Reserves.

X. Brad Guzan, Goalkeeper, 2004-2005: Guzan grew up in suburban Homer Glen, IL and starred with the Chicago Magic under Matkovich.  Matkovich annually assembled one of the top collections of college stars in the country and for two seasons his goalkeeper was Guzan.  He was very well regarded as a youth goalkeeper and I recall the first time I saw him play for the Fire Premier, aka Reserves, as a gangly 19 year old in a US Open Cup tie against SAC Wisla, a local amateur team.  While the Fire Reserves won the match 5-1, I was disappointed by Guzan’s play.  Just as the peasant-turned-newt did in “The Holy Grail”, however, he got better.   His 0.388 goals against average was the best in the PDL in 2004.  He went on to star for Chivas USA where he earned MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2007 and currently is Brad Friedel’s backup at Aston Villa where he has shown his knack for saving penalties.

Matko’s Memories: “Brad Guzan, he’s like my son. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I knew he was going to make it because he’s a tough guy. He’s got a lot of talent from a young age. You know how you can tell when a guy’s young, you know he’s going to make it because his head is on right? He’s the perfect guy for that.”

IX. Jay DeMerit, Central Defender, 2001-2002: The Green Bay, WI native and former University of Illinois-Chicago defender played two seasons with with the Fire Reserves where he was mainly ignored by then Fire head coach Bob Bradley and me.  His rags with English seventh-tier club Northwood to riches with Watford story has been well told and now he is on the cusp of making a real difference on the soccer world’s biggest stage.  This time, he wasn’t ignored by Bradley. 

Matko’s Memories: “He’s super athletic kid, good guy, good willingness to work. It’s interesting to see how he ended up where he is because he ended up just going overseas on a walkabout with this other guy named Kieran, who was an English guy. And he ended up sticking England. Ever since then, it’s been nothing but successful. When we had him, he was a very good defender. We were able to play 3-5-2 with him on the field. I remember him marking Pat Noonan and taking him out of the game; Pat didn’t have a shot at goal. He was just so good athletically. He’s one of the best defenders we’ve ever had in the Fire Reserves. I can see why he’s where he’s at.”

VIII. Jonathan Spector, Right Back, 2003: The second most famous soccer player from Arlington Heights, IL, Spector played briefly with the Fire Reserves, before signing with Manchester United.  I saw the highly touted Spector play in one of his few appearances with the Fire Reserves and it was in the midfield.  A few months later, he was moved into the back by Sir Alex Ferguson and was training with his new club, Manchester United.

Matko’s Memories: “We only had Jonathan one year. We got him out of the Residency program. We actually played him outside/left mid. He was only 16 when he played for us, he was very young. But he was a special guy. He had the profile to make it. When he was in with us and to start him it was a good experience for him playing with us in the PDL because he played with older guys. I think it really helped him when he was back down in Residency.”

VII. Ricardo Clark, Central Midfielder, 2002: I certainly didn’t spot future stardom every time while scouting Fire Reserves games, but Clark’s talents were obvious as a 19 year old in his only season with the PDL club.  His loping strides and deft touch reminded me of a young Manuel Lagos.  The following winter, he turned pro early and was selected second overall by Bob Bradley and the MetroStars.  Bradley was pleased that DC United used the first pick to take New Jersey native and local favorite Alecko Eskandarian as he preferred Clark for his new club’s needs.  The Fire picked third overall and were disappointed, but not surprised, when Clark was taken leaving us with Nate Jaqua, whom we also felt would be a solid MLS player.

Matko’s Memories: “We only had one season with Ricardo. He played U-19 and he played in the Fire Reserves.  When he came obviously you can tell this guy had talent right away.  He was in and out of the national team pool. At the level with the PDL he covered a lot of ground. Had the ability to take games over and dominate the middle of the field from a holding spot. When we had those teams he was only 18/19 but he was one of our better guys at that age.”

VI.     Mike Sorber, Assistant Coach, 2000: The St. Louis native was Bora Milutinovic’s MVP for the US in the 1994 World Cup, went on to play for UNAM Pumas  where he was the first American to be named to the Mexican league All-Star team then played in MLS for four seasons before joining the most talented team in Fire history, if not MLS history in 2000.  He played 24 games helping the Fire capture the Central Division title and reach the MLS Cup Final.

Five players, the coach and the son of the coach of the 2000 Chicago Fire are among 11 2010 US World Cup players and coaches with ties to the early Chicago Fire.

Five players, the coach and the son of the coach of the 2000 Chicago Fire are among 11 2010 US World Cup players and coaches with ties to the early Chicago Fire.

V. Lubos Kubik, Assistant Coach, 1998-2000: The Czech international is my favorite Chicago Fire player ever.  His skill on the ball, economy of movement defending the Fire goal and genteel personality all exuded class as he worked with Piotr Nowak and Chris Armas to stabilize the spine of the Fire through its first three MLS seasons.  The Ring of Fire member has great insight into the game developed over decades of playing and coaching in the top leagues of Italy, France and Germany.  Bradley has used Kubik to scout European and other World Cup competitors as well as American players in Europe.  He also provides insight that is valuable from a former player of Kubik’s pedigree that includes 56 caps, including the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships.

IV.     Jesse Marsch, Assistant Coach, 1998-2005: Jesse was always a coach as a player.  Coaching probably comes more naturally to him than playing.  He made the very most of his playing abilities by working hard and analyzing the game.  Those qualities and his long history with Bradley dating back to his college days at Princeton University make Jesse a great complement to Bradley’s staff.

III. DaMarcus Beasley, Midfielder, 2000-2004: DaMarcus came to the Fire in a draft day trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy just moments after we selected Carlos Bocanegra.  The Fort Wayne, Indiana native flourished in Chicago where his parents were able to drive to all the home games.  He electrified fans with his speed on the ball and through Bradley, learned to become a tenacious defender.  At the time we sold him to PSV Eindhoven, he was the most popular player in Chicago and one of the most popular in America.

II. Carlos Bocanegra, Defender, 2000-2004: Carlos was a high school football and soccer star in southern California.  fortunately for US Soccer, the future national team captain chose to focus on soccer at UCLA.  We worked exceedingly hard the week prior to the 2000 MLS SuperDraft to move up from our #4 slot to get the MetroStars first pick overall, so we could be assured of selecting Bocanegra – and failed.  As the old saying goes, “sometimes the best trades you make are the ones you don’t.”

The night before the draft, we had even arranged a scenario that would’ve given the MetroStars the #3, 4 and 6 selections and put Chicago #1 to assure getting Bocanegra.  The MetroStars said “no”.  The failure to make that deal led to the most productive ten minutes in Chicago Fire history.  Little did we know that Octavio Zambrano was holding onto the pick to use for another UCLA defender, Steve Shak, who went on to play 38 games over two MLS seasons before finishing his career in the USL.  Kansas City and Colorado followed with selections of Nick Garcia and Adin Brown leaving Carlos available at #4 and allowing us to trade the #6 pick along with a 2001 1st round pick to LA for Beasley.

I. Bob Bradley, Head Coach, 1997-2003: The best decision I’ve made in my career was hiring Bradley as Chicago’s first head coach.  Not only did he build the Fire into a great team, he taught me important life skills about communication, family, priorities, accountability, listening and integrity.  He’s taken those qualities with him to the US Men’s National Team.  I’m not surprised one bit that he has the winningest record in US Men’s Soccer history while playing the most difficult opponents and taking a look at the most players in US Soccer history.

Bradley coached seven of the ten others on this list in MLS - five with the Fire, Brad Guzan at Chivas USA and Michael Bradley at the MetroStars.  He has surrounded himself with players, coaches and staff that he is familiar with and whom are familiar with him.

There is a level of trust, respect and understanding in the group overall, but especially among the coaches and the players who have previously played for Bradley.  This relationship has developed over years of working together, talking to each other, challenging each other.  It has built a sense of unity.  The group really came together at the Confederations Cup after they rebounded from a poor start to challenge for the championship.  Fifteen players on that Confederations Cup roster are on the US World Cup roster.  I’m convinced that the unity this team has acquired as a result of the shared history and methodical assembly of both team and staff will lead to America’s greatest soccer success.  That common bond and past relationship has helped build the collection of individuals into a true team and for eleven of them that shared background includes time in Chicago with the Fire or Fire’s PDL team.

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