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Past ties link conference leaders
by Ridge Mahoney, May 28th, 2009 11:10AM
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[MLS] They are years removed from their time in Chicago, yet the former Fire members now employed by Chivas USA are respectful of that past as well as the present.

"We talk a lot about it," says Chivas USA captain Jesse Marsch, of the 1998 expansion team that won the U.S. Open Cup as well as MLS Cup. "Even more than the success - because I think we should have won one or two more cups - we were all proud of the environment that was created there and the battling every day but still respecting each other and knowing how to treat each other."

Chicago comes into its meeting with Chivas USA (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) Thursday at Home Depot Center as the league's only unbeaten team (4-0-6) and atop the Eastern Conference. Chivas USA leads the West with the league's best record (7-1-3) and four former Fire players on its roster, headed by Marsch and keeper Zach Thornton.

"When we got Zach last year we started kidding around, calling ourselves 'Chicago Fire West,'" says another member of the group, defender Jim Curtin. "But don't tell Preki, I don't think he'd like that."

Preki, in his third season as Chivas USA head coach, spent most of his playing career in Kansas City, which beat Chicago, 1-0, in MLS Cup 2000. (One of his teammates on that team was current Fire defender Brandon Prideaux.) When his stellar attacking forays ended, Preki joined Chivas USA as assistant coach and understudy to Bob Bradley, the former coach of the Fire (1998-2002). Bradley left Preki in charge when he took over the U.S. national team.

"That was a great team in '98 and for several years after that," says Thornton, a five-time All-Star and Goalkeeper of the Year in the double-winning season. "This team is good as well and I don't want to compare them, because that team won championships and we haven't won anything yet. But if we were able to do that here we could compare.

"The similarities I see in Bob and Preki is quality control in training, being organized and disciplined when you're playing, and bringing your best effort every day. I wasn't here when Bob was here but I played with Bob in Chicago and now here with Preki."

The Chicago connection is just one of many subplots to the showdown of conference leaders. Mexican League veterans Eduardo Lillingston, Mariano Trujillo and Claudio Suarez - who has yet to play this season but just came off the injured list - are matched against fellow countryman and icon Cuauhtemoc Blanco, whose outstanding play for Chicago the past two months has earned a recall to the national team.

"It's definitely a special occasion," says Trujillo of Thursday's game on the team's Web site. "It's a great chance for everyone ... to see some great Mexican players on both teams."

Says Lillingston, "It's an enticing game. "These are two of the best teams in the league, each with some big-name players. [It's] going to be a great match."

Chicago leads the league in scoring (17 goals), Chivas USA fields the stingiest defense (six goals). Chicago has won its last two road games (at Toronto and New York), with Chris Rolfe netting a goal in each game; Chivas has won five and tied one at home this season.

"He has been in great form," says Fire coach Denis Hamlett of Rolfe, who had groused a bit about not starting games, much as Blanco had done while recovering from an injury at the start of the season. "The last three-and-a-half to four weeks, he's been pretty good. He's been a good pro and dealt with situations that are not easy.

"He's come in and helped us as a reserve and I felt the time was right and he stepped on the field and when he gets it on the goal, he's probably one of the better finishers in our league."

One of the top finishers in the history of the league, Ante Razov, is the only former Fire player not available for this game. He is still recovering from ankle surgery and has yet to play this season.

In Hamlett's first full season as head coach, the Fire posted a 13-10-7 record and lost to eventual champion Columbus, 2-1, in the conference final. On the other bench is one of the league's all-time great players; not all of them make a smooth transition to coaching, but with a lifetime mark of 34-19-18 while in charge, the Chivas USA mentor is doing something right.

"Preki does a good job of keeping us grounded and it's a great group of guys in the locker room," says Thornton. "It's definitely a team effort and we're all happy with the success we're having right now, but it's a long season."


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