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D.C. must overcome Chicago jinx
by Ridge Mahoney, October 25th, 2007 7AM
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TAGS:  mls


Every team, even the most successful one in MLS history, has to have a bogey opponent, that nettlesome foe always capable of inflicting a painful result no matter what the setting or situation. Four-time league champion D.C. United opens its quest for a fifth title on Thursday against Chicago, a team it has never beaten or scored against in the postseason.

Outscored by Chicago 10-0 in five postseason meetings, of which it has lost four and tied one, United's players must wash away memories of 2003 and 2005. (Of the current squad, only Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno played in the 1998 MLS Cup that D.C. lost to Chicago, 2-0, in the Rose Bowl.

CHICAGO (10-10-10) vs. D.C. UNITED (16-7-7)
Eastern Conference semifinal, first leg
Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Four years ago, Chicago swept D.C. with a pair of 2-0 victories and reached the final, which it lost, 4-2, to San Jose. D.C. opened the 2005 playoffs in Chicago with a 0-0 tie, then suffered a 4-0 humiliation at RFK Stadium. That result hurt every bit as much as last year's 1-0 home loss to New England in the conference final.

In the finest soccer tradition of a soccer being "a game of two halves," the Fire's season can likewise be divided into equal portions. President John Guppy hired Juan Carlos Osorio in mid-July with the Fire mired sixth in the Eastern Conference at 4-7-4. Since he took over, Chicago has won six and tied six of 15 games.

Osorio's arrival coincided with that of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and it's hard to gauge who has made the greater impact.

Certainly Blanco's explosive dribbles, sharp passes, and booming shots have transformed the attack, yet the defense-minded Osorio has shored up the back with the addition of Wilman Conde while also addressing the offense by signing Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope.

Since Osorio, Blanco and Wanchope came aboard, D.C. and Chicago have played twice. They tied 0-0 at RFK 12 days ago with Moreno on duty for Bolivia; he and Chad Barrett scored in a 1-1 tie at Toyota Park Sept. 23.

Moreno scored from a bad angle in the 84th minute when Fire keeper Matt Pickens let the shot, which he thought was going to sail over the crossbar, float into the net. Blanco set up Barrett's goal by lofting a long ball over the D.C. back line, and those long-range serves are just one weapon United must deal with.

Barrett led the Fire in goals with seven, and Chris Rolfe - limited to 19 games because of high ankle sprain - scored six. Despite playing just 14 games, Blanco finished third on the team in goals (four) and tops in assists (seven). The Fire scored just 31 goals, by far the fewest of the eight playoff qualifiers and tied with Real Salt Lake for third-worst in the league.

Five United players matched or exceeded Barrett's total of seven goals, yet despite his league-high mark of 20, Luciano Emilio is thought by some D.C. fans to be wasteful. His scoring percentage of slightly better than 25 percent (20 goals and 79 shots) is above average, and on par with teammates Fred (7 goals in 28 shots, 25 percent) and Ben Olsen (7 goals in 29 shots, 24 percent). Moreno scored his seven goals on 34 shots (21 percent).

Can D.C. penetrate the Fire defense with Moreno and Emilio hobbled by foot and ankle injuries, respectively? They didn't train Monday but are listed as probable. Their backups - Jerson Monteiro, Guy-Roland Kpene, Stephen DeRoux and Rod Dyachenko - have garnered only two goals and two assists in 40 appearances.

Josh Gros is officially out of the playoffs because of a wrist injury but his history of concussions and severe headaches certainly carried some weight in the team's decision. Fire midfielder Justin Mapp has been out of the lineup for more than a month with a sprained ankle and been upgraded to doubtful for the first game. Chicago finished the season as the league's toughest team to beat, winning three of its last eight matches and tying the other five.

United's propensity to foul - it led the league with 509 fouls -  might produce more free kicks than is prudent for D.C.

Since losing to Guadalajara, 1-0, in the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana Oct. 2 and being eliminated on away goals (2-2 aggregate), D.C. has tied twice and lost once in MLS play.

Yet the Chicago playoff curse has to end sometime

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