The Hell is Real Derby is exciting. But it lacks any real history and if FC Cincinnati doesn’t figure how to run a real sports team, it may not be much 0f a rivalry. The Trillium Cup was fun for a few years, but Toronto FC has Canadian teams to worry about. D.C. United is out-dated.
Over the majority of the first 25 years of Major League Soccer play, Columbus Crew SC’s true rival was the Chicago Fire. And while the rise of closer rivals and the long-term swoon of the Fire has turned what was a heated rivalry into dying embers, it doesn’t take much to re-ignite. The road trips have decreased in recent years. Chants of Firehouse East from visiting rowdy Fire are quieter in recent years.
With the Crew resuming MLS play on Thursday night against the Fire at MAPFRE Stadium, Massive Report felt it was prudent to remind fans of the deep-seated enmity and the games that provided plenty of entertainment on the field.
A brief early history of Fire
The Fire missed out on being a founding club of MLS by two years. Starting play in 1998, the team won MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in its inaugural season. Chicago then won Open Cups in 2000, 2003 and 2006. The team started out in the Western Conference before moving to the old Central Division in 2000. This was the first year that the Crew and Fire shared conferences.
This is when the rivalry heated up. Chicago defeated the Crew in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup final. The game was originally scheduled to take place in a neutral venue in Virginia Beach, but due to a hurricane, was moved to the Fire’s home stadium. Chicago won 2-1 in extra time and neither Columbus, nor its supporters were pleased.
This sparked fierce and competitive meetings between the two teams that extended into the early half of the 2000s.
The Fire struggled after the initial title-winning talent departed. After the team lost access to Soldier Field, the stands began to empty, moving to a high school stadium in the suburbs. But fortunes revived with the acquisition of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the building of SeatGeek Stadium and the move to become the Bridgeview Fire.
2008 - The greatest year of the Crew-Fire rivalry
The Crew was finally rising on the backs of head coach Sigi Schmid’s plan to turn the team around. The Fire found a new gear with Blanco in the midfield and the coaching of Juan Carlos Osorio and was a serious challenger in the Eastern Conference. The rivals were on a collision course.
Through the early months of the season, Chicago and Columbus matched each other win for win. Both teams opened the season with 6-2-1 records and the Crew even fell behind in the standings, going on a three-game losing streak.
By the time of the first regular season meeting in July, the Black & Gold had turned around their brief losing streak and had lost to the Fire in an epic extra time Open Cup game. Chicago raced out to a 2-0 lead through 25 minutes, quieting the MAPFRE Stadium crowd. An Emmanuel Ekpo strike in the first half closed the gap, but it took an 87th minute Steven Lenhart goal to even up the game. Nothing separated the Fire and Crew through 90 minutes of regular season action.
The teams tied again, this time in Bridgeview in October, just before the playoffs. Crew legend Brian McBride came home to the United States from the English Premier League and to Chicago to finish out his career and gave the Fire a 1-0 lead before Eddid Gaven and Guillermo Barros Schelotto scored in the second half to put the Crew on top. Another McBride goal, in the 79th minute ensured nothing could separate the pair again. The result did secure the Supporter’s Shield for Columbus, however.
Of course, the final of four matches came in the playoffs. The Fire was the best team remaining on the bracket and the matchup had a finals energy. McBride again gave Chicago the lead in the first half as boos rained down from the Nordecke, but the Crew fashioned another second half comeback behind a powerful Chad Marshall header and a well taken Eddie Gaven goal.
The Crew won its first MLS Cup a little over a week later. Many supporters still remember the game against the Fire at MAPFRE Stadium more fondly than the 3-1 win against a mediocre New York Red Bulls side in Los Angeles.
2009 - Jerseygate
Blanco has always reveled in being the heel. As a former star for the Mexican National Team, that wasn’t hard to do in the United States. But the Fire’s trip to Columbus in April of 2009 stands out.
The midfielder drew a very controversial red card against Crew left back Gino Padula from referee Jair Marrufo during the match. The game ended in a 2-2 tie, but that was beside the point. The big controversy happened off the pitc when Marrufo and Blanco had a conversation during the halftime break up the tunnel and Blanco tossed his jersey into the referee room on his way to the locker room after the game.
Somehow, Blanco escaped punishment and Marrufo was suspended two games for his performance. As expected, Black & Gold fans were furious.
Off the field
What made the Crew and Fire rivalry so intense at its heyday was the hatred not only between the players competing, but the fans in the stands as well. Given the city’s proximity to each other, it was an easy six-hour drive for fans to attend away matches. The Fire fans, who were among the league’s first real “supporters” with the Section 8 group, frequently took over the south stands at MAPFRE Stadium and often drowned out Columbus’ supporters on the other end.
During trips to MAPFRE, the Chicago visitors were known to steal and break flags and other gear from fans and cause issues in the parking lot prior to and after the match. Crew fans were not immune to bad behavior either, with altercation occurring among the supporters in trips to the Fire’s stadiums.
Message board talk — yes, this was pre-Twitter — also sparked things, especially with the Black & Gold struggling to win a championship and Chicago’s success from the get-go.
Other great moments in Crew-Fire Rivalry history
2003 - The Fire was the best team in the league. The Crew was not, as two teams in the 10-team league that missed the playoffs. The Fire rested players before the playoffs and the Crew took advantage. With the Fire up 2-0 at halftime, Columbus stormed back with six second half goals to win 6-2. McBride and Edson Buddle had braces. Jeff Cunningham and Freddie Garcia added a goal apiece.
2004 - Buddle drops a free kick to keep Crew’s record unbeaten streak going. The game was a slog. Buddle’s goal wasn’t.
2006 - A shining moment in a terrible season: The biggest home opener in MAPFRE Stadium history was a 1-1 tie against the Fire on a brilliant 75 degree spring day in April, 20,818 fans packed the stands to see the high point of the 2006 season.
2009 - In the September game in Bridgeview, Padula avoided a red card in the sixth minute after coming in late on Blanco. It was a heavy tackle and far worse than the red card he got in earlier in the season against the Mexican international.
2015 - Columbus broke a nearly decade winless streak on the road against the Fire with 1-0 victory on a steamy Wednesday night in July.
While the Crew-Fire rivalry doesn’t have the same feeling today as it did early in the two teams’ existence, or even 10-or-so years ago, it is one that will live in history. Chicago has always had other rivals, FC Dallas mainly, and with the addition of St. Louis to MLS, that will add another one. The Black & Gold, based on proximity alone, will continue to build dislike for FC Cincinnati, and Columbus fans enjoy watching Toronto lose.
But if the Crew and the Fire have a period where they are both good and competing for the top spot in the East again, you can rest assured this match will light and the rivalry will renew.