[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
, 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
has deputized several times this season at center back alongside Michael Parkhurst
, but that move does leave midfield slack to be picked up by
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
, as well as converted midfielder Larentowicz and the skillful Parkhurst. Fire left back Gonzalo Segares
likes to get forward, and both center backs,
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
Thursday, 8 p.m ET
New England (12-11-7, 3rd place) vs. Chicago (13-10-7, 2nd)