MLS Semifinal (Eastern Conference Championship)
NEW ENGLAND vs. CHICAGO Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Revs did the business on the road last year by scoring an early goal at RFK Stadium and holding on for a 1-0 victory that earned it a second straight appearance in MLS Cup, which it lost on penalty kicks to Houston following a 1-1 tie in regulation.
Most of the Revs also played in the 2005 final, a 1-0 overtime loss to Los Angeles, and a few of them, like Taylor Twellman, also lost the 2002 final to the Galaxy, also 1-0, in overtime.
"Some of the guys call me Jim Kelly," said Twellman, in reference to the Buffalo Bills quarterback who lost four straight Super Bowls. "But I don't want to equal that record. If we get into a fourth final, I want to win it, and let him keep that record for himself."
Can Chicago replicate the Revs' 2006 feat by winning the conference final on the road? It is just the type of team to beat New England at its own game even though it plays a very different game, and lost in last year's playoffs to New England on penalties after the teams tied 2-2 on aggregate.
New England finished 10 points higher than the Fire in the regular season and its goal difference (plus-eight to minus-five) is far superior, but Chicago hasn't been beaten in the last 10 matches and despite conceding two goals to D.C. in the conference semifinals -- after accumulating a 3-0 aggregate lead -- has conceded only eight goals in those 10 games. It also gave up fewer goals (43-36) than the Revs and beat them twice (1-0 and 2-1) at Toyota Park.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco is an infuriating, intoxicating catalyst who will be tightly monitored by Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz. Yet Blanco is just as effective a conduit or a decoy as he is a triggerman, and Chris Rolfe brings creativity that complements the strength of Chad Barrett and the speed of Logan Pause and/or Calen Carr.
Rolfe and Barrett scored the goals last month that overturned a 1-0 lead forged when Larentowicz hit a missile from well outside the penalty area. New England had already clinched its playoff spot and thus had far less to play for than the surging Fire, yet neither Fire goal stemmed from the brilliance of Blanco.
A newfound defensive resiliency can be credited to Coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who has drilled his players incessantly on positioning, tenacity and movement. The acquisition of Colombian Wilman Conde, who has been used in central midfield as well as the back line, has added toughness and strength in the air.
Conde and veteran Fire midfielder Chris Armas will be busy keeping track of Steve Ralston, who led the league with 14 assists, as well as the robust Twellman (16 goals) and crafty Pat Noonan (seven goals, four assists). At the other end, Defender of the Year Michael Parkhurst's skill on the ball will be just as important as keeping the middle of the Revs' defense secure.
The heroics, as is sometimes the case, might come from less heralded players. Will Khano Smith or Wells Thompson dominate their sides of the Revs' midfield? Will the Fire's Gonzalo Segares set up a great chance with a long ball out of the back? Will Justin Mapp, who hasn't played since late August because of a bad ankle, come off the bench to spark Chicago?
Like Twellman, Armas has played in three finals, winning the title in 1998 with an expansion team and losing in 2000 (1-0 to Kansas City) and 2003 (4-2 to San Jose). He points out that teammates C.J. Brown and Diego Gutierrez also have a lot of playoff experience and a few midseason changes - including a sale of the team by AEG to Andell Holdings -- dramatic though they were, have proved to be beneficial .
"Last year, we made a good run at the end of the year," says Armas. "We won the Open Cup and played New England [in the conference semifinals] and losing in the shootout.
"There's a lot of factors that make the team look different. You have a new coach, Justin Mapp and Chris Rolfe became healthy, Blanco came to our team, now it's [Paulo] Wanchope and Wilman Conde, so you get some different personalities and all the other factors, and maybe the team is more motivated, all of a sudden, it's a different-looking team.
"I believe we're a team that's really worked hard, that has had some ups and downs this year, but we've gotten through it. We're on the good side of it, we have that belief in our locker room that we can get the job done."