[MLS]If history is to repeat itself in the MLS playoff series between Chicago and New England, the Revs can't lose, right? Not necessarily, for while New England has knocked off Chicago in the last three postseasons, and can do so again Thursday (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) when the teams meet at Toyota Park, who's to say the Fire won't duplicate its 2003 triumph?
Chris Armas scored in the 101st minute of that Eastern Conference final to break a 0-0 tie and send Chicago to its third MLS Cup, which it lost, 4-2, to San Jose. Since then, the roster has changed drastically - only three players from that team are still on the Fire roster - and the club has added and dropped players and changed coaches with the same postseason result: defeat by the Revs.
"They're a quality team," says keeper Jon Busch, who played every minute of all 30 regular-season games after backing up Matt Pickens last year and this week was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. "They're defending Eastern Conference champions and until someone knocks them off it's their title. They're missing some key players but they've got some players who've filled in very nicely for them."
Busch is referring to New England's success in the postseason irrespective of its regular-season finish. This year, Chicago edged the Revs for second place, and thus hosts the decisive second game. Yet it lost under the same conditions two years ago, falling on penalty kicks after the teams ended up tied, 2-2, in the two-leg conference semifinals.
"It's going to be a battle," says Busch, who lowered his career goals-allowed average in the playoffs to 0.85 by shutting out the Revs last Thursday in the first leg. "It's going to be hard, physical soccer. It may not be pretty, but they've knocked us off the last few times and hopefully this is our year. I believe in our team and I think we'll get the job done but it's definitely not going to be easy."
Busch's return to starter status hasn't been easy, either. Five years in the lower leagues (Hershey, Charlotte, Worcester, Nashville, Hampton Roads) gradually wore away suspicions he was too small (5-foot-10, 165) earned him a slot with the Crew in 2002 under former head coach Greg Andrulis, and after finally claiming the No. 1 shirt in 2004, ACL injuries to both knees in the next two seasons shelved him for all but 17 games.
The Crew used five goalies, including Busch, during a 2006 season in which it missed the playoffs for the second straight time after winning the regular-season conference championship, with Busch in the nets, two years earlier. At the end of the 2006 season began his rift with Coach Sigi Schmid, which turned into a frenzied preseason of plane trips, training sessions, phone calls, and paperwork.
"I was told one thing in November and something else happened in January," says Busch. "They didn't tell me until two weeks into preseason that they were going to waive me. Toronto picked me up, I spent two weeks in Florida and Carolina with Toronto and things were good there, but unfortunatelyMo [Johnston] had too many Americans, so he had to get rid of me."
What the former Toronto FC head coach couldn't accommodate was just what Fire goalkeeper coach Daryl Shore needed: an experienced backup for keeper Matt Pickens. "I was sitting in an airport in South Carolina, and about to fly back to Columbus," remembers Busch, "and Daryl calls me. They ended up flying me down to Orlando, I trained with them Friday through Sunday, went back to Columbus, then went on the next trip with them I think it was to Mississippi.
"The Monday before the season started, they told me they wanted to get a deal done, so we started talking, and we got a deal done the Friday evening before first game Saturday evening."
Busch played just three games during the regular season and sat on the bench as Chicago lost, again, to New England in the playoffs. In the offseason, Pickens decided to let his MLS contract run out and try his luck in Europe, leaving Busch the chance to prove that despite rehabbing two knee injuries and playing just 20 games during three seasons he had come all the way back.
Head coach Denis Hamlett, then-GM John Guppy, and Shore assured him he'd get the first crack at the first team.
"Maybe some guys would have thought they had to get somebody else because they weren't sure," said Busch, 32. "But they all believed in me and told me on the phone they thought I could help them win a championship."
Chicago is three wins from that goal, but has been this close or closer many times. Busch tied for the MLS lead with 10 shutouts and posted a 1.10 goals-allowed average, but those stats and his award mean nothing at this point. Seasons can be redeemed or ruined in the playoffs, and no position is more critical than goalkeeper, where heroics and howlers can eradicate everything else.
"I like the playoffs, and to me, it's like hockey," says Busch, an avid fan of the ice men. "A hot goalkeeper can make all the difference and I think it's the same in our sport. It's gone well so far for me this year and I hope it continues all the way to the Cup."