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Where’s Fire? On Top of MLS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bulls are not playing. The Bears aren’t doing much. Who knows what the Blackhawks will do and who cares what the Cubs and White Sox did?

But not to worry, Chicago, you’ve got a champion after all.

The Chicago Fire, a first-year team with as much or more self-belief as Dennis Rodman and twice as much personality, on Sunday won Major League Soccer’s championship, defeating Washington D.C. United, 2-0, in front of a crowd of 51,350 at the Rose Bowl.

The victory was both deserved and controversial.

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Chicago, playing its usual unflappable defense and sporting a more adventurous attacking look, got first-half goals from Poland’s Jerzy Podbrozny and Colombia’s Diego Gutierrez and held on to dethrone the two-time defending champions.

Coach Bob Bradley thus becomes the first MLS coach to win three titles. He was an assistant under Bruce Arena when Washington won in 1996 and ’97.

And he did it with an expansion team. A year ago, the Fire did not exist, but that fact never bothered Bradley.

“When we started building our team, we never thought we weren’t supposed to be a good team,” he said.

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As for Arena, he was gracious in praising Bradley and the Fire but, days before being named U.S. national team coach--an announcement will be made Tuesday in New York--he pointed an accusing finger in the direction of the game officials.

“The Chicago Fire did what they had to do today,” Arena said. “The breaks certainly didn’t go our way. I think the missed call on [Marco] Etcheverry early in the game was a big call. The offside call for the second goal was a big call.

“Yet give them credit. They hung in there. Zach Thornton played extremely well. The breaks went their way. They deserved to be here. They deserve to be champions.”

Unlike the previous two MLS finals that were played in heavy rain, Sunday’s game got under way under bright skies and with a larger-than-expected crowd, given the Galaxy’s failure to reach the final.

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It might have had an especially dramatic beginning had referee Kevin Terry awarded D.C. United a penalty kick in the opening minutes when Etcheverry was sent sprawling in the penalty area.

To the Fire’s immense relief, no call was made.

Minutes later, it was D.C. United’s turn to look to the heavens in thanks when defender Jeff Agoos managed to clear Chris Armas’ shot off the line after goalkeeper Tom Presthus had been beaten.

It was evident that Chicago, with a lineup that featured winger Roman Kosecki as a surprise starter, was not going to sit back and defend. D.C. United, which was playing its third game in eight days, was soon being pulled and pushed all over the field.

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The first goal was the work of Kosecki’s Polish compatriot, Peter Nowak, who deservedly was named the game’s most valuable player. He exchanged passes with former UCLA forward Ante Razov, then drew Presthus out of the net before passing to Podbrozny for the 29th-minute goal.

It awakened the small knots of red-clad Chicago fans in the stands and forced D.C. United to attack with more vigor. And then, seconds before halftime, the Fire struck again.

Again it was Nowak who created the goal and should have been given credit for it. He collected the ball from Gutierrez, beat a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot that deflected off Gutierrez’s chest and into the Washington net.

But Razov had run through the goal area on the play and appeared offside on the goal, which was credited to Gutierrez.

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Referee Terry disagreed.

“In the opinion of the referee,” he said afterward, quoting the rule book, “Razov, while in an offside position, did not interfere with the play.”

So the goal stood, Chicago took a two-goal lead into the locker room and was untroubled in the second 45 minutes as D.C. United looked increasingly tired and ragged. Etcheverry was marked out of the game by Armas and when he did get free, Thornton was unbeatable in goal.

Commenting on Arena’s quibbles about the refereeing, Bradley agreed that he might have had a point.

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“There’s a chance Bruce is right on those issues,” he said. “That’s how calls go in the game sometimes. I do believe that those were some of the breaks that we got that helped determine the outcome.”

Meanwhile, Razov’s explanation of the second goal was curiously convoluted, but matched Terry’s opinion.

“I didn’t touch the ball,” he said. “I had nothing to do with the play, so he can make a case that I was offside, but if I don’t touch the ball . . . It deflected off Gutierrez. If it hits me, then I’m offside. I think I could even have gotten to it and tapped it in, but I knew I was offside.”

It was all academic after the final whistle, however.

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For the Fire’s “Eastern Bloc” of Poles Nowak, Podbrozny and Kosecki and Czech defender Lubos Kubik, who played another superb game, it marked a championship that the four veterans long have sought.

For American players such as Thornton, Armas and C.J. Brown, it marked the culmination of an extraordinary season.

Frank Klopas, former U.S. national team forward and Chicago native, had time for a quick comment while running off the Rose Bowl field.

“It’s been great season and this tops it all,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. I hope we can defend the title as well as D.C. has.”

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Teammate Francis Okaroh, the take-no-prisoners defender from Nigeria, had another outlook. He made it plain that he was unhappy at not having been protected by the New England Revolution last fall, a move that allowed the Fire to claim him in the expansion draft.

“This,” he said, “makes it worth the trip to Chicago.”


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