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Fire anxious to end Revs' postseason hex
by Ridge Mahoney, October 30th, 2008 7AM

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[MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEW] Before a broken leg sidelined Steve Ralston, before post-concussion symptoms benched Taylor Twellman, yet after Chicago completed its 3-0 sweep of games against New England this season, Fire assistant coach Chris Armas warned the playoffs would be different if the teams were to meet again.

Armas, who ended his playing career through retirement last November, witnessed first-hand the games that ended Chicago's season the past three years. In all of them, the Fire fell to the Revs, so regardless of injuries to Twellman and Ralston, and the first-leg suspensions for defender Gabriel Badilla and midfielder Khano Smith, Armas isn't expecting anything less than a fierce 90 minutes at Gillette Stadium Thursday (kickoff 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

"Last year, Taylor Twellman hits a bike ... and we go out (1-0), and two years ago, we lost on penalties," recalls Armas, leaving out the Clint Dempsey goal that eliminated the Fire, 1-0, in 2005. "They have a lot of guys who've been there and even though they haven't been able to win MLS Cup, I have to feel the road to MLS Cup goes through New England again."

That's certainly the path Chicago must take, and for different reasons, the Fire lineup will differ from that of years past. Since being beaten by the Twellman bike, Chicago has lost Armas and traded away Chad Barrett but added forwards Brian McBride and Patrick Nyarko, midfielders Stephen King and Marco Pappa, starting defender Brandon Prideaux, and installed goalie Jon Busch as the starter.

It also promoted longtime assistant Denis Hamlett to head coach, and under his tutelage the team finished second, its highest placing since it won the Eastern Conference five years ago. That's also the last time it reached MLS Cup, and the path this year goes through, etc., etc.

Another newcomer to the postseason rivalry, in a way, is Busch. He sat on the bench last year as Twellman's bike beat keeper Matt Pickens and watched as waves of Fire attacks failed to tie the game. When Pickens left for Europe during the offseason, Busch stepped into the starter's role and played all 30 regular-season games despite Pickens' attempt to get back into MLS during the summer.

"We've always played New England well in the regular season but they seem to have our number in the playoffs," Busch said. "This year, we look to right that ship. It's going to be a battle as usual. New England is a very experienced team, they bring a lot to the table in terms of personnel and for that reason we need to bring our 'A' game."

The Revs may have to field a few member of their 'B' team, but still that offers Coach Steve Nicol attractive options: rookie forward Kheli Dube, youngsters Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally, midfielder Mauricio Castro, and rookie defender/midfielder Pat Phelan. Yet in three games this season, the Fire outscored the Revs, 9-1, so deciding who plays where in whichever system he chooses won't be as important for Nicol as containment and control in the middle and defensive thirds.

Yet if Nicol opts for a 4-5-1 with Dube or someone else alone up top, the Revs may struggle to score and as the home team in the first game of a two-leg series are more or less compelled to do so. Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has deputized several times this season at center back alongside Michael Parkhurst, but that move does leave midfield slack to be picked up by Shalrie Joseph and his partner, possibly Phelan. Mansally and Nyassi can attack out of midfield, though, and are especially adept through the channels.

How well Joseph and his teammates can contain Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chris Rolfe, Justin Mapp and McBride may play a bigger role in the second game than in the first leg, but a more subtle influence in the series might be which team uses the ball better coming out of the back.

The Revs have an aggressive right back, Chris Albright, as well as converted midfielder Larentowicz and the skillful Parkhurst. Fire left back Gonzalo Segares likes to get forward, and both center backs, Bakary Soumare and Wilman Conde, can hit accurate passes.

"In that position, it's about more than being physical, you can be creative with the short and long game," says Soumare, who sat out the last playoff loss to the Revs but this year started 28 games in just his second pro season. "Any time you can have a combination of physicality and technical [ability], it's a plus for us in the back."

The second game will be played in Chicago next Thursday (Nov. 6) at 9 p.m. ET.

In the two-game, total-goals series, if the teams split the two games, total goals will decide who advances. If the teams are tied in goals at the conclusion of the second game, 30 minutes of overtime are played and if the teams are still tied, the series is decided by penalty kicks.

MLS EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
Game 1
Thursday, 8 p.m ET (ESPN2)
New England (12-11-7, 3rd place) vs. Chicago (13-10-7, 2nd)

 



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