EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
CHICAGO vs. REAL SALT LAKE (8 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Espanol)
Though the Fire is at home, RSL has reeled off three straight victories, and actually matches up very well. It may have peaked last week in winning, 3-2, in Columbus, yet is riding such a wave of confidence and momentum it can certainly prevail again. Chicago is just as pumped after thumping New England, 2-0, in front of a roaring, sellout crowd, which the team is hoping will show up again for one more Saturday night.
RSL has a vast range of talent in midfield - Javier Morales, Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson - and two forwards in good form, Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan, as well as Fabian Espindola and Clint Mathis. Morales is one of those irritating playmakers who can stroke a through ball, clip a cross, or loft a chip over the back line, and moves so intelligently he's hard to track. RSL surprises teams by pinching in its outside midfielders and creating chances simply with greater numbers, as it did to spring Morales for the goal that started the comeback from a 2-0 deficit in Columbus.
Chicago, of course, has one of the league's best game-breakers, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who can mesmerize and freeze an opponent by floating around the attacking third in search of the right ball at the right moment. Beckerman and Johnson must monitor him but also pass him off to defenders while making sure there is cover, otherwise Brian McBride or Patrick Nyarko or Chris Rolfe will spring through a gap. Nyarko, like Findley and Movsisyan, is blazing fast, and in his second pro season is finding more ways to get in behind the opposition's back line.
Both Beckerman and Chicago's John Thorrington are tough in the tackle, can run all day, and can sneak forward on a late run, as Thorrington did to stab home a Blanco pass against the Revs. This is the biggest pro game for a few players on both teams, so how a Marco Pappa (Chicago) or Tony Beltran (RSL) responds at a critical moment might decide the outcome.
Injuries and the transfer of Bakary Soumare to French club Boulogne in midseason has forced Chicago to revamp its back line, though central defender Wilman Conde may be fit enough to play. Daniel Woolard played left back and Dasan Robinson lined up in the middle alongside C.J. Brown with Brandon Prideaux at right back to subdue the Revs, but RSL is a far more potent team.
"If you look at our stats from last year and this year," says keeper Jon Busch, "they're pretty much identical: 10 clean sheets in the same amount of games, one more goal against this year (34) than we gave up last year, so it's pretty amazing to see that we're right there even with the amount of changes we've had in the back line."
Prediction: Fire 3, RSL 2.
Ridge Mahoney's Playoff prediction record: 4-4.