Chicago aims to stifle New England's offense
Just how important is momentum?
That is the question we will get an answer to on Thursday when the red-hot Chicago Fire face the tepid New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference final (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Can the Fire, a team that hasn't lost in 10 matches (including the playoffs), be slowed down by a Revs team that didn't win a single game in the month of October before barely knocking off a toothless Red Bulls squad?
Based on the Revolution's lethargic play at the tail end of the season, it's almost easy to forget that New England is the team that has made the Eastern Conference final their home for the past six years. Furthermore, most of the same core that has played in two MLS Cups is still around.
As for the Revolution's opponent on Thursday, Chicago has transformed its season from lost cause to title run on the strength of staunch defending, Cuauhtémoc Blanco's playmaking and coach Juan Carlos Osorio's tactical acumen. The Fire made D.C. United, the best team in the league all season, look ordinary, and must now face a Revs team that has been doing a pretty good job of making themselves look ordinary the past few weeks.
So who has the edge in the East final? Chicago beat New England the last time these teams met, a 2-1 win on Oct. 6, but the stakes are much higher and the Revs will be at home, hoping to keep their unbeaten conference playoff record at Gillette Stadium intact.
Key matchup: Shalrie Joseph vs. Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
You couldn't ask for a better clash of talents than the league's most exciting playmaker against the league's most complete midfielder. Blanco's task is a brilliantly simple one. He sits in front of the Fire's defensive wall and receives a steady stream of possession, which he converts into scoring opportunities with his unmatched vision and touch.
|MLS Conference Finals|
|New England vs. Chicago|
Houston vs. Kansas City,
The Revs could call on Joseph to shadow Blanco, or workhorse Jeff Larentowicz could get the call. Joseph is so vital in initiating New England's attack with his long passing that Revs coach Steve Nicol might decide he is too valuable to use on Blanco. Nicol could also determine that if Joseph neutralizes Blanco, then Chicago's offense will sputter.
Another matchup that could be just as entertaining, if not more, is New England defender Michael Parkhurst against Chris Rolfe. Parkhurst reads the game like no other defender in MLS, and his surprising speed will be needed against Rolfe, who is rounding into form at just the right time.
Players to watch:
For Chicago -- midfielder Cuauhtémoc Blanco, forward Chris Rolfe, defender Wilman Conde, goalkeeper Matt Pickens
For New England -- midfielder Shalrie Joseph, forward Taylor Twellman, defender Michael Parkhurst, midfielder Steve Ralston
Chicago has earned a label for being a defensive-minded team, but the Fire's stingy defense has as much to do with the willingness of all 11 field players to defend as it does with Chicago's tactics. The Fire will look to press New England midfielder Steve Ralston while forwards Rolfe and Chad Barrett will track back to limit Joseph's time and space with the ball.
Against the Fire, the Revs could rely on wingers Khano Smith and Wells Thompson to provide service, which won't come easy. Dasan Robinson and Wilman Conde are well-equipped to shut down both Revs wingers.
Offensively, the Fire will look to feed Blanco and to get early balls to speedsters Rolfe and Calen Carr, who rewarded Osorio's faith in him with a good performance against D.C. United. Blanco is the catalyst, but the Revs are better equipped to slow him down than D.C. was.
Justin Mapp and Paulo Wanchope could play key roles for the Fire. Mapp appears ready to contribute after being sidelined by an ankle injury, and his speed on the flank could create problems as a second-half sub. Wanchope has been benched during the playoffs, but a player of his experience is always capable of stepping in and contributing. His size and ability to pass from a holding forward position could come in handy in the second half.
X Factors: Chicago's Wilman Conde and New England's Jeff Larentowicz
Conde has become the Fire's Mr. Versatility. He is capable of playing fullback, center back or central midfielder. His tenacious work against Ben Olsen was crucial to Chicago's success against D.C. United, and Osorio will have to figure out where best to use the Colombian international. Don't be surprised to see Conde deployed in central midfield, where he could prove to be a disruptive force for the Revs' best passers.
Larentowicz goes relatively unnoticed by people outside New England, but he has put together a solid season in his first full year as a starter. He does a lot of the dirty work that allows Joseph to contribute to the attack but is also capable of surging forward for occasional shots on goal (he scored three goals this year). Larentowicz could be the one to sneak a goal through Chicago's defensive wall while the Fire focus on the likes of Twellman and Ralston.
Outcome: The winner will be determined by which New England team shows up. If it is the Revs team that struggled to convert chances while giving opponents far too many chances, the Fire will be the first visiting team to win a playoff game at Gillette Stadium. If the Revs can find the free-flowing offense that made them so dangerous for most of the season, New England will return to the MLS Cup.
The only problem is that since Andy Dorman's form has plummeted, the Revs have struggled to make up for his playmaking ability. New England already went into this season needing to make up for the departure of Clint Dempsey. Now, without Dorman, the Revs are too reliant on Ralston to create. Since neither Twellman nor Noonan will create many chances on their own, the Revs could struggle.
That doesn't bode well against a Fire team that defends so well and limits opportunities for even the best attacks. Chicago is playing with confidence and with an intensity that will be tough for New England to match, even at home. Do not expect a shootout. Look for the Fire to stifle the Revs' offense and put at least one shot past goalkeeper Matt Reis to book a spot in the MLS Cup final.
Prediction: Fire 1, Revolution 0
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.