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Inside Soccer

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Posted: Tuesday October 27, 1998 04:57 PM

Feat to the Fire | Big Changes Are On the Way | Man Without a Country? 

By Grant Wahl

Feat to the Fire  

Sparked by a Web-surfing Pole, expansion Chicago won MLS Cup '98

Sports Illustrated Peter Nowak, the Chicago Fire's playmaking midfielder, is a four-hour-a-day Internet addict. One night last November, Nowak, a 34-year-old native of Pabianice, Poland, sat down at his computer in Munich and logged on to the MLS Web site. He clicked to the Fire's page and clicked again to the bio of Bob Bradley, the coach of Chicago, an expansion franchise that would debut in April. There he saw that Bradley had played and coached at Princeton and that he had been an assistant with two-time MLS champion D.C. United. "I got the feeling," Nowak says, "that he was very smart and would know how to win the championship."

  Rugged tackling from Razov helped the Fire shut down John Harkes and D.C. United Robert Beck
Win the championship? With an expansion team? If Nowak had searched the Net a little longer, he no doubt would have learned that no team in modern U.S. pro sports history had ever won a title in its inaugural season. That changed on Sunday. Before a crowd of 51,350 at the Rose Bowl, Nowak was a certifiable Pole-tergeist, terrorizing United's vaunted defense and handing out two assists in the Fire's 2-0 upset victory in MLS Cup '98.

How do you start from scratch, march undefeated through the playoffs and win the championship in less than a year? First, you take the initiative. Unlike many MLS coaches, who wait for the league to bring foreign stars to them, Bradley traveled to Germany last December and met with Nowak. He had been impressed with Nowak's play for Poland in World Cup qualifying and for 1860 Munich in the Bundesliga. Bradley and Nowak hit it off instantly, and MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati flew a few weeks later to negotiate the deal. Says Bradley, "I felt at that point that we had a great player and a great starting point for building a team."

Nowak's signing (and subsequently that of two other Polish players, forward Roman Kosecki and midfielder Jerzy Podbrozny) certainly made sense for Chicago, which has more Polish-speaking residents than any city in the world except Warsaw, but the Fire also made several other savvy moves along the way. When asked on Sunday to name Chicago's three biggest acquisitions, Bradley paused for a long time before citing Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Chris Armas. In February the Fire picked up Kubik, 34, a Czech sweeper who possesses excellent ball skills and would win MLS defender of the year honors. A month earlier it had traded two players and an allocated player to be named later to the Los Angeles Galaxy for Armas, 26, a defensive midfielder, and star Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos.

Bradley's trio played a significant role in the MLS Cup victory. Kubik started a brilliant four-pass sequence that led to the Fire's first goal, while Nowak made an ankle-breaking cut against United's top defender, Eddie Pope, that freed him to set up the second goal. Armas merely decided the match by shackling United playmaker and league MVP Marco Etcheverry. "He's tricky, so you try to stay close, beat him to balls and make him play the ball backwards," Armas said afterward. "If I can get him to lay the ball off, then my job is done."

Chicago goalkeeper Zach Thornton made three sprawling saves in the second half to preserve the shutout. Certainly Bradley's boldest decision of the year was to award Thornton, 25, the starting job ahead of Campos just before the playoffs (causing Campos to leave the Fire early to join his Mexican team, UNAM Pumas). A 6'3", 210-pound former New York/New Jersey MetroStars backup who attended Loyola College in Baltimore, Thornton says he would have played pro lacrosse instead of soccer had there been a viable league. While Campos was at the World Cup, Thornton took full advantage of his absence. He seized the starting job and won the MLS goalkeeper of the year award with a record 1.17 goals-against average.

"As a coach you have to be very honest about doing what's best for the team, because your credibility is based on decisions that you make," Bradley said. He was referring to the Campos controversy, but he could just as easily have been describing everything that had happened since that day in Munich last December. Nowak, after all, got it from the start: Bradley is very smart. He knows how to win championships.

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Big Changes Are On the Way  

On Tuesday, United coach Bruce Arena was to be named coach of the U.S. team. How dramatically will he alter a side that finished 32nd out of 32 countries at World Cup '98? Let us count the changes. Arena says that while he plans to keep a few veterans, there will be a "revolving door of new players" auditioning over the next two years for the team that will represent the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup. "There's a group of players who have a lot of potential but no [international] experience," he says. "In 1998 and '99, those are the ones we'll look at."

The new blood, Arena says, will include several players who appeared on Sunday. From United, he plans to call up the league's rookie of the year, Ben Olsen, 21, along with fellow midfielders Tony Sanneh, 27, and Richie Williams, 28, and defender Carlos Llamosa, 29, a Colombian native who became a U.S. citizen last week. Arena will tap the Fire's talent at both ends of the field, summoning forwards Ante Razov, 24, and Josh Wolff, 21, as well as Thornton. Some or all of these players could participate in the Americans' first friendly under Arena, against Australia on Nov. 6 in San Jose.

It's about time that selection to the national team was based on merit instead of reputation, and Arena's shrewd negotiating—he demanded and received a four-year contract through World Cup 2002—gives him the job security to experiment. "It doesn't help to win games in '98 and '99," Arena said last week. "You need to start winning games in 2001."

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Man Without a Country?  

Armas, who capped a breakout season by being named all-MLS, was included in Arena's list of new faces. But there's a sticking point: He may never be eligible to don a U.S. jersey.

In 1993 Armas, a Bronx native whose mother is Puerto Rican, played in five games for Puerto Rico in an obscure tournament called the Shell Caribbean Cup. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, stipulates that a player cannot represent a nation after having played for another in a FIFA-sanctioned competition.

One crucial question remains: Was the 1993 Shell Caribbean Cup an official competition or an exhibition? If it was an exhibition, Armas would be eligible for the U.S. team. "We're getting a ruling within the next week from FIFA," says Gulati, a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation's executive committee.

Armas, a former star at Adelphi, says that in 1993 he never thought he would get a chance to play for the U.S. "If I'm not eligible, I'll regret that," he says. Then again, Armas could become an advocate for expanding the Union. Puerto Rican statehood would enable him to play for the U.S. immediately.

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Issue date: November 2, 1998  

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