CALL IT a homecoming.

Peter Nowak is expected to be welcomed back with open arms tomorrow night when the Union travels to Chicago to take on the Fire, an expansion franchise that Nowak, the Polish soccer great and former German Bundesliga standout, put on the map as captain in 1998.

He was a face for the strong Polish fan base in the Windy City that watched Nowak, fellow Pole Jerzy Podbozny, Czech midfielder Lubos Kubik, Greek forward Frank Klopas and other Major League Soccer stars hoist "The Double" in the club's inaugural season, winning the MLS crown and U.S. Open Cup title.

Nowak's name is on a banner above the center circle of the pitch at Toyota Park, for Pete's sake. That team was so good, even I rode the bandwagon as a high school junior, sometimes donning Chicago Fire merchandise. (I still have a T-shirt, now considered a throwback.)

Klopas, now Chicago's technical director, claims that few MLS teams rivaled that 1998 Fire contingent.

"It was a very special group of guys," said Klopas, who had six goals and four assists in 17 appearances that season. "It was a group in the sense that, when we stepped on the field, it was all about the team. Sometimes you get 11 guys together who play and you have one or two individuals, but there were no individuals on that team, and that really is the reason we did so well."

You wouldn't think it, with his strong, imposing demeanor today as the Union's manager, but Nowak was a "jokester," Klopas recalled. When asked to elaborate, Klopas laughed, hinting that some stories are better left unsaid.

"I have some cool stories, but some things are between friends," he said. "All I will tell you is that he was a jokester and was definitely someone that liked having a good time. It was hard to see, because he was always so serious as a captain and a leader, but when it was time to let loose and have a little fun, Peter was the first one."

But the time for laughs are on a back burner now, as the Union will take the pitch tomorrow night riding a stretch that could be considered an upswing - a tie and a win in its previous two games - just in time for MLS' break for World Cup play. The Union plays again Thursday, then not again until June 27. When it resumes play, it will christen its $115 million home on the Chester waterfront with a slew of matches. With Chicago reeling and the Union slowly finding its bearings, there is no better time to pounce.

"It will be special, yes; I have a lot of friends there, and I enjoyed my time in Chicago," Nowak said. "But we have a job to do, and our job is to continue to go into these games and come out with points. As coach, that is my only concern. All the other stuff is for later."

Klopas agreed.

"It will be nice to spend time with an old friend, but, obviously, this comes under different circumstances," Klopas said. "Everyone is out to get the result for their team, so he [Nowak] knows as much as I do that it'll be all smiles until the whistles. We have to be ready to play our best game; this is a team we can't underestimate. This team is a reflection of their coach, and their record [2-5-1] really doesn't do them justice. It's apparent they have individual abilities, and now they're finally playing as a team, which makes them very dangerous."

Yet while the game is centered on the expansion Union's upswing, the memories of what Nowak did as a new player on an expansion team in 1998 have not been forgotten.

"Peter is a winner, and no one knows that more than the fans he has in Chicago," Klopas said. "He was a class act who left everything he had on the field. He wore that jersey with honor, and the fans know that. And I know, when he comes to town, they plan on showing their appreciation."

Califf's corner

With the Union beginning to string together some positive results, few are happier than team captain Danny Califf. On Wednesday, Califf spoke about the team's efforts, players coming into their own and why playing on the road "stinks."

Union Meeting: Danny, in two games, the team has shown resolve, resulting in some points. To what do you attribute the upswing?

Danny Califf: It's nice, right? It's been great that we haven't decided to shoot ourselves in the foot. I think overall looking back, yeah, we could've criticized ourselves, but we know we are better than how we've played, and we are continually trying to show it.

UM: A couple of guys have really stepped up and showed what they are capable of, which has helped you guys going forward, namely, Shea Salinas and rookie Danny Mwanga. Talk about these two for a bit.

DC: Shea has a lot of talent, but has been up and down, but Peter has instilled in him a confidence that he will be the man and that we need him to be capable to play anywhere. [As for Danny], he's realizing he is a big dude and can impose himself on defenses. I think he realizes now that he isn't playing against boys anymore. Being 18 and for him to already realizing this at just 18 in just 4 weeks, he keeps this up, and he won't be around in this league for very long.

UM: The team is back out on the road again this weekend against Chicago. What's the game plan . . . and how grueling are all these matches on the road? (The Union is playing the second of three straight road games and has played six of eight league games on the road, plus a U.S. Open Cup game at New York.)

DC: They are a team that is a bit desperate for a result [Chicago's last win came against Houston on April 24] . . . never a good time to play a team when they are desperate. We can't allow them to get confidence or an early goal, because they will feed off that. As far as road games . . . I am not going to lie. It stinks, the fact that we are traveling every single week, having to deal with flights, hotels, constant disruption in the training schedule. But it doesn't do us any good to use these things as an excuse as to why we can't get a result every game.

Dribbles

Union USL-2 affiliate Reading United is through to the second phase of play for the U.S. Open Cup. Reading emerged from qualifying undefeated (4-0-0) and will host fellow USL-2 side FC Maryland on June 15 at 7:30 p.m . . . Last week's "Union Meeting" broke the news that Italian national team captain Fabio Cannavaro was on the team's radar as a potential designated player signing. Instead, Cannavaro signed with Arab side Al Ahli on Wednesday . . . Ric Brooks, former head coach of New Jersey prep power St. Benedict's, is expected to be announced as the newest member of the Union front office in the coming weeks. Multiple sources tell the Daily News Brooks recently resigned from the school to take on a position, possibly in youth development. *

Shots on goal

UPCOMING GAME

Union (2-5-1) at Chicago Fire (2-3-4)

When: Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Toyota Park, Chicago.

TV:Channel 6

On the Web: Streaming webcast on MLSSoccer.com

For kicks: A homecoming of sorts for Union manager Peter Nowak, who played five seasons (1998-2002) in Chicago, leading the expansion Fire to MLS and U.S. Open Cup titles in its inaugural season (1998) . . . Chicago hasn't celebrated a win since April 24, a 2-0 defeat of Houston . . . Fire veterans Brian McBride and C.J. Brown, if healthy, will look to lead by example, as both are nursing minor injuries. McBride, 37, a U.S. national team legend, is still very potent on the attack, while Brown, 35, solidifies a back line that has allowed 13 goals in nine games (1.44 goals-against average) . . . This is the first time the Union enters a contest with no players on the injured list.

INJURY REPORT

Union: No injuries to report

Out for the Fire: Calen Carr, FW (right quadriceps strain); John Thorrington, MF (left calf strain); Tim Ward, DF (left calf strain)

Probable for the Fire: C.J. Brown, DF (bilateral quad soreness); Brian McBride, FW (right groin strain).

HE SAID IT

"It's been amazing to see what can evolve when we stop shooting ourselves in the foot." - Union captain Danny Califf on the team's eliminating foolish penalties, infractions and the joy of competing with 11 players for an entire 90 minutes.

TRIVIA TIME

Question:

Major League Soccer expanded from 10 teams to 12 when it added Chicago and another franchise in 1998. But when the league reverted to 10 teams in the 2001 season, which team was left with the title of having the shortest stint in MLS?

a. Tampa Bay Mutiny

b. Miami Fusion

c. New York/New Jersey MetroStars

Send answers to gabrielk@phillynews.com.