[MLS PLAYOFF PREDICTION]
Chicago hosts a conference final for the first time since 2003, which is also the last time it reached an MLS Cup championship game, when it plays
Real Salt Lake Saturday at Toyota Park. EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
SATURDAY CHICAGO vs. REAL SALT LAKE (8 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports
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
- 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 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
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.
Mahoney's Playoff prediction record: 4-4.