There are two things to be aware of regarding the Fires match against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night at Toyota Park:
First, this one will be in the middle of a three-games-in-nine-nights stretch the Fires first endurance test of this Major League Soccer season.
Also, this match will mark the renewal of a club tradition. Itll highlight the first time the Fire has added a member to its Ring of Fire in three years, and the honoree will be a most deserving one. If C.J. Brown hadnt been picked for this cherished honor it would have been a travesty.
There are other former players who merit consideration for the highest honor available to a Fire player Zach Thornton and Ante Razov are the most obvious but Browns selection by the other Ring of Fire members was a no-brainer.
Peter Wilt, the Fires first president, envisioned the Ring of Fire as the ultimate honor for a player wearing the (usually) red jersey and the first honoree was as obvious as Brown will be on Wednesday night. Peter Nowak, now the coach of the Philadelphia Union, was the first member of the Ring of Fire in 2003. He was the Fire captain for the clubs first five seasons and the leader of the team that scored an improbable sweep of the MLS and U.S. Open Cups in the inaugural season of 1998.
Nowak retired as a player after his rights were acquired by New England after five great seasons wearing the Fire armband.
Following Nowak into the Ring of Fire was Frank Klopas in 2004. He was a clear choice as well, being a standout as a player and later as an assistant coach, front office staffer and now head coach. Hes become the Chicago soccer icon the Fire so sorely needed to establish its place on the citys sports landscape.
Next came Lubos Kubik in 2005. There was no more solid a defender in Fire history than Kubik, a cool-headed back-line guy who could score on set pieces as well.
Wilt himself was honored in 2006, a credit to John Guppy who was big enough to accept the fact that his predecessor as club president well deserved the honor despite his surprise early-season dismissal after guiding the franchise for seven years.
The Ring of Honor seemed in jeopardy after Wilts selection, but Bob Bradley the first head coach had his name inscribed on the Toyota Park wall in 2007, and two years later Chris Armas, the second captain and every bit the leader that Nowak was, followed him into the select place in Fire history.
It took three more seasons before the franchise, after undergoing ownership and leadership changes, revived the Ring of Fire tradition. Brown had the most games played in franchise history (374 in his 13 seasons). He hoped to enter coaching at the minor league level after his retirement as a player but hit the jackpot when Real Salt Lake hired him as an assistant, a job he is holding for a second season. He hasnt forgotten Chicago, though, as evidenced by his plans to establish a youth soccer camp here.
As for Wednesday nights match itself, itll be a battle. RSL is one of the best teams in MLS despite its 3-0 loss to the Fire late last season, when the club was bidding unsuccessfully to earn a playoff berth with a strong final 10 games. Marco Pappas first career hat trick ignited that big road win, and Pappa is playing great now. He had the MLS goal-of-the-week in a home loss to Seattle before notching the game-winner in stoppage time in a 2-1 road victory vs. Chivas USA last Friday.
The Fire (3-2-2) will regain Jalil Anibaba, one of the defenders counted on to replace Brown in the middle of the back line. He sat out the Chivas match while serving a one-game suspension. Theres some doubt that striker Chris Rolfe, a former Brown teammate, will play his first match since returning to the Fire after a three-year stint in Denmark. Hes been recovering from an ankle injury and started running this week, but whether hes ready for game action is uncertain.
The first busy stretch of the season concludes on Saturday when Sporting Kansas City, another fast starter this season, comes to Bridgeview.