[MLS SEMIFINAL PREVIEW]
Eastern Conference finalists, the similarities go beyond the presence of a dynamic playmaker, a quality left back, a solid holding midfielder, a rugged striker, and a strong back four. Both teams are
talented, hungry, well-coached, and long overdue heading into their meeting at Crew Stadium Thursday (7:30 ET, ESPN2). Chicago has lost in two MLS Cups, the 2000 and 2003 editions, after capturing the
title in its first season a decade ago. Columbus, an original member of MLS when it began operations in 1996, has never reached the final hurdle, much less cleared it.
subplots are the presence of MVP finalists Guillermo Barros Schelotto
and Cuauhtemoc Blanco
, the return of Fire striker Brian McBride
to their former MLS team, and the matchup of Coach of the Year Sigi Schmid
and rookie head coach Denis Hamlett.
"There are a lot of
similarities in both teams," says Schmid, "because both teams play with one striker and the other striker kind of roams around a little bit, whether it's Blanco or Guillermo. I like our pace on the
flanks. [Chicago's Chris
's got good pace but I think our pace is amongst the best of any team in the league and certainly that's something we always look to
exploit every time we play."
In three meetings this year, Columbus and Chicago played a pair of 2-2 ties in league play and a rousing 3-2 Fire victory in the U.S. Open Cup. In the
playoffs to date, each team has scored three goals by three different players. Their leading goalscorers each tallied nine times.
Yep, it's a toss-up. RALLY CAPS,
As the regular-season results attest, neither team has been able to hold off the other upon gaining a lead.
In the last meeting at Toyota Park a month ago, McBride scored
the first and last goals of the game as the Fire went up 1-0, then had to rally from a 2-1 deficit to get the tie. At Crew Stadium in early July, Chicago led, 2-0, after 25 minutes on goals by Rolfe
and Calen Carr
, but Columbus battled back when backup Emmanuel Ekpo
and super-sub Steven Lenhart converted Schelotto assists.
"They don't quit,"
says Rolfe, who wound up as the Fire's top scorer with nine goals, the same as Crew leader Alejandro Moreno
. "The previous year, once you got a goal on them, they would drop their
This year, the Fire has struggled when it conceded the first goal. In 10 games this season, Chicago has trailed, 1-0. Its record in that situation is 1-8-1.
Schelotto and Blanco, combined, scored 14 goals and recorded 30 assists this season, and being deployed as de facto second forwards has opened up variations in
other parts of the field.
McBride and Moreno are the strikers, Logan Pause
and Brian Carroll
are the holding mids, and John
and Brad Evans
serve as central conduits between attack and defense. Of the latter pair, Evans might be more offensively inclined, but Thorrington - who scored a
couple of crucial goals earlier in the season - has provided critical tackles and blocks in recent weeks, a couple of which bordered on fouls.
"Those guys work so well together," says
keeper Busch of teammates Pause and Thorrington. "John's like the Energizer bunny, he's all over the place. He goes box-to-box.
"One minute he's blocking a shot in our penalty area and
the next thing you know he's got a chance at the other end. The workrate on both of those guys' part is just fantastic."
Carroll, cast loose during the winter after five seasons with D.C.
United, set up Evans for the first goal last weekend against Kansas City with a chip over the backline that Evans lobbed over keeper Kevin Hartman
. Evans also nailed a long-range
goal in the regular-season finale that erased D.C. United's faint playoff hopes.
For wide play, Columbus has Robbie Rogers
(left) and Eddie Gaven
combined for nine goals. Chicago counters with Justin Mapp
on the left and Rolfe on the right. Mapp tied a career high with eight assists, and Rolfe, a forward for most of his
career, is an evasive, tricky pest whether he stays wide or veers inside. DEFENSIVE STANCE.
Chicago conceded 33 goals, only one more than defensive leader Houston, and
Busch . The Crew's mark of 36 goals allowed ranked third.
Each team has an attacking outside back, a more conservative counterpart, and solid central defenders. Frankie
storms up the right side for Columbus while Gino Padula
looks for passing opportunities; Gonzalo Segares gets forward on the left as Brandon Prideaux plays a more
cautious game, especially if Rolfe slides into the middle.
Chicago defender Bakary Soumare
was a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year; the honor went to Crew counterpart
. Soumare's central partner, Wilman Conde
, has scored the only postseason goal tallied by either team on a set play; he headed in a Mapp free kick for
the second goal against New England in the 3-0 win. FINAL WORDS.
"They're a little bit bigger than us," says Schmid. "When you look at Conde and Soumare and Prideaux and
McBride, they've got some pretty good size. I'm sure they're going to try and use that to their advantage on free kicks and corner kicks."
Says Hamlett, "Columbus is a dangerous team
because they can score goals from different parts of the field. They are good on set pieces and they are as a whole a good team. Defensively you can't focus on just one or two players because they are
an all around good team."
There you go. Enjoy the show.