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Sep 8, 2007

Brazil game a reunion for members of the '98 Fire

CHICAGO -- It doesn't seem like it, but almost a decade has pased since Bob Bradley took an expansion team and put the pieces together of a championship squad in just one season. It was nine years ago, in fact, since the Chicago Fire lifted the MLS Cup title and U.S. Open Cup trophy in its first year of existence.

It isn't a formal reunion but this weekend's U.S. national team match against Brazil will offer some good flashbacks for several key figures of that inaugural Fire team. You have U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, U.S. assistant coach and former Chicago captain Peter Nowak, World Cup veteran Josh Wolff, a rookie on that Fire team, and U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who was the 10-year-old coach's son with full inside access to one of the best teams in MLS history.

"To experience something where a team in its first season has all the pieces come together and ultimately wins the double is something you'll always remember," said Bradley, who will lead the U.S. team against Brazil on Sunday at the same Soldier Field his Chicago team dominated on. "We had players who had big careers and were at the end of their careers and players who were in their first years as pros. To be a part of something special and winning a championship is something that can never be taken away."

"There was so much talent on that team and it was just a great environment to be around," said Michael Bradley, now a 20-year-old starting midfielder for Dutch club Heerenveen. "You had such a good mix of older guys and younger guys, Americans and foreigners, [it] was really good."

Michael credits his quick ascent as a pro and national team player, at least in part, to the lessons he learned watching and being around a championship team.

"It would have been hard to spend all the time around them that I did and not pick up some things," Michael said. "Watching a guy like Peter [Nowak] every day in training and seeing how hard he trained and played even in the smallest game in training, was something else.

"We'd put the small goals out there after training and he'd still be out there sliding around, coming after me," Michael said of Nowak. "To go to the games at Soldier Field and know it was a fortress for them, a place other teams came to, knowing they had no chance."

Wolff is another former member of the '98 Fire to make his way back to the U.S. national team fold. Currently excelling for German club 1860 Munich, Wolff has come a long way since being a rookie in Chicago's first season in MLS.

"You had a talented young player who left college early to become a pro," Bradley said of Wolff. "Josh was in his first season so he hadn't experienced the tough parts of being a pro yet. He hadn't had any injuries and nothing was expected yet.

"When he started to play more and score some goals, and the team started winning, you could tell he was just having fun and not feeling the pressure."

Nine years later, Wolff is a veteran of two World Cups and is returning to the national team mix after a transitional period following his move from MLS to Germany. At 30, Wolff has a long-shot bid to be in the mix for a third World Cup. However, he has played well enough for 1860 Munich to earn a recall to help provide some veteran leadership to the current U.S. group as it evolves under Bradley.

Consider it one of many changed roles for those veterans of the ''98 Fire family who are back in Chicago this weekend. Nowak has gone from captain to coach, Wolff from rookie to seasoned vet and Michael Bradley from child spectator to budding national team regular. Bob Bradley admits that it doesn't seem like nine years ago since that magical Chicago Fire season, but he has plenty of evidence to remind him that the years have come and gone.

"[Time] goes fast," Bradley said. "It doesn't seem that long ago, but on the other hand a lot has happened since then."

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.