As the MLS season kicked off last Saturday, you'd be hard-pressed to find two teams more eager to start the year than the New England Revolution and the Chicago Fire. The Rev's 2-1 loss to Houston in last year's MLS Cup final -- their third consecutive championship game defeat and fourth overall -- led Rev's forward Taylor Twellman to declare afterwards, "You guys can compare me to Jim Kelly all you want." Removing that Buffalo Bills tag can begin only with the start of a new campaign.
As for Chicago, the Fire were just as keen for the season to commence. That was due to a tumultuous offseason that saw them lose head coach Juan Carlos Osorio to New York, captain Chris Armas to retirement and goalkeeper Matt Pickens to a European club.
New England made good on its vow to start the season well, destroying MLS Cup nemesis Houston, 3-0, while Chicago stole a road point in a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake. Now the two teams will meet in this year's first installment of MLS Primetime Thursday (Game 1 of the doubleheader begins at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), and given that Chicago has been eliminated from the playoffs by New England the past three years running, the intensity that usually accompanies the start of a new season should be abundant.
Five story lines to follow
1. Denis Hamlett's long road
Apprenticeships don't come much longer than Hamlett's 10-year stint as a Fire assistant coach, but after twice being passed over the top job, the Costa Rica native was finally handed the coaching reins last January. Hamlett admitted to some nervousness prior to last week's 1-1 road draw with Real Salt Lake, but given that he coached the Fire on an interim basis last year, he expects Thursday's home opener to be more straightforward.
"Now that we have the first game out of the way, it's about playing games now," Hamlett said. "It won't be like it was for the first game."
2. New England's Gambian connection
About the only thing more surprising than the Rev's rout of Houston last weekend was the play of 19-year-old imports Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, who tormented the Dynamo with their pace and close control. The pair was first spotted by head coach Steve Nicol at least year's U-20 World Cup, and on a night when the Revs were shorthanded, they provided a huge lift. The key now is for the Gambian duo to not get carried away, although Nicol anticipates no such problems.
"They're not daft," said Nicol of Mansally and Nyassi. "I'm sure they'll keep their feet on the ground and we'll help them keep their feet on the ground from here on in."
3. Where's Wilman?
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Osorio's departure for New York, coming less than six months after taking the Chicago job, was tough for the Fire to take. But a bad situation became downright bizarre when defender Wilman Conde demanded last February that he be traded to New York so he could rejoin Osorio. Chicago has denied his request -- for the moment -- and an ankle injury was presumed to be behind his failure to make the substitutes' bench against RSL. Hamlett indicated that Conde has returned to full training and may play a part in Thursday's encounter. If that's the case, his reception from the Toyota Park faithful should be interesting to say the least.
4. Ailing Revs
It may be only the second game of 2008, but New England's injury list is already in midseason form. Midfielder and captain Steve Ralston suffered a dislocated shoulder against Houston, and Nicol revealed that Twellman will soon undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair "a nick" in the meniscus of his forward's left knee. Getting heretofore unknown players to perform is something Nicol has turned into an art form throughout his career, and that skill will be in high demand against the Fire.
5. The Fire's forward dilemma
The conventional wisdom is that the only thing preventing Chicago from joining the league's elite is a striker capable of finishing off Cuauhtémoc Blanco's precise passes. To that end, Hamlett acquired forwards Tomasz Frankowski, Andy Herron, and Patrick Nyarko in the offseason in a bid to challenge incumbents Chad Barrett and Calen Carr. Saturday's combo of Barrett and Frankowski was ineffective, but Hamlett chalks that up to the fact that Barrett spent most of preseason with the U.S. Olympic team.
"I think our final third, attacking-wise, we just weren't on the same page," said Hamlett. "A lot of times we had some good breaks and we passed when we should have dribbled and dribbled when we should have passed. The movement and timing of that was a little bit off."
|MLS Primetime Thursday|
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)
San Jose at Los Angeles
Five players to watch
1. Shalrie Joseph, M, New England
The Grenadian international has long been the premier defensive midfielder in MLS. But with Ralston out injured, and Andy Dorman no longer with the club, expect Joseph to assume more of an offensive role. Joseph has been known to make attacking forays before, and given the four goals and five assists he tallied in 2007, it's a position where he could excel.
2. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, M/F, Chicago
Chicago's offense revolves around the former Mexican international, but for 90-plus minutes last Saturday, Blanco gave little indication that he would deliver. That is until he rescued the Fire by scoring a stoppage time equalizer. That Blanco did little else in the game didn't matter a bit to Hamlett.
"That's the special quality that [Blanco] has, either with a pinpoint pass that can put someone through to finish a goal, or his ability in front of goal, where he gets half a look and he can finish it," said Hamlett.
3. Adam Cristman, F, New England
The task of filling in for the injured Twellman will fall to Cristman, who while lacking Twellman's goal-poaching instincts, provides valuable hold-up play and a "bull in the box" mentality that can create havoc for opposition defenses. A finalist for last year's Rookie of the Year award, Cristman was unfazed by his late insertion into the starting lineup Saturday, scoring the Revolution's second goal.
"Cristman has good experience behind him," said Nicol. "And he showed what a good professional he is. Coming in at the last minute, and being active for 90 minutes shows you how hard he's been working in the preseason."
4. Logan Pause, M, Chicago
Blanco is likely to pop up anywhere on the field, and that unpredictability is what makes him so effective. It also puts the onus on his central partner, Pause, to break up plays and keep the rest of the midfield organized when possession is lost. It's a role that was once the exclusive domain of the now retired Armas, although Pause did fill in there on occasion. Now it's up to the six-year veteran to not only replicate Armas' on-field displays on a weekly basis but his leadership as well.
5. Michael Parkhurst, D, New England
If the mark of a good defender is to barely notice his performance, then Parkhurst is MLS' invisible man. The Wake Forest product committed a whopping five fouls last year, using brains rather than brawn to get the job done.
"We can always tell when we've done well because you never notice Michael," said Nicol. "And that's only because he breaks things down and cuts things out before they become a huge danger."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.