Chicago hoping to capitalize on home-field advantage
Playoff soccer is often about which team can impose its will on the opposition. In some cases, it's about applying brute force in key parts of the field. In others, it's about finding that nugget of creativity needed to unlock the opponent's defense, often in the face of relentless pressure. After playing to a gritty 0-0 stalemate in the first leg of their total-goals playoff series, Chicago and New England will meet again on "MLS Primetime Thursday" (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) to see who has the greater resolve.
For much of the first leg, New England succeeded in creating a chaotic tempo that did plenty to take Chicago out of its comfort zone. The fact that there wasn't much attacking cohesion shown by the Revs didn't bother manager Steve Nicol one bit. Missing his top three goal-scorers (Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston and Adam Cristman) due to injury, and with defensive consistency all but invisible over the past month, Nicol adopted a back-to-basics approach: Defend like animals, and be more direct in attack. Given the multitude of offensive weapons at Chicago's disposal, it's a game plan that New England will likely duplicate Thursday.
"The key is to close them down when you turn the ball over," said Nicol of Chicago. "If you stand off, let them run at you, and let them pass the ball through you, then you're in trouble.
"Their real strength is the [attacking players] they have with [Brian] McBride, [Cuauhtemoc] Blanco, [Justin] Mapp and [Chris] Rolfe Number one, can you deny them the ball? But if you can't deny them -- and inevitably they're going to get it at some stage -- then you have to shut them down quickly and stop them getting in their stride."
The tactics, at least on the offensive end, are a bit of a departure for New England, in that in past seasons the Revs showed more variety in attack. The Revs are certainly capable of passing the ball, but given the forwards at Nicol's disposal, New England is now forced to find different ways of springing its front line than in the past. Gone is the box presence provided by Twellman and Cristman, with Kheli Dube and Kenny Mansally now in their place.
New England at Chicago
8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
"They've got youth, and they've got pace," said Nicol of Dube and Mansally. "If they can add that wee bit of guile, they'll cause anybody problems."
The Rev's speed element -- largely contained in the first leg with the help of some subpar service -- is just one of several issues facing Chicago head coach Denis Hamlett. That precious home-field advantage the Fire spent 30 games securing is there to be utilized, but there is also the risk of getting carried away by the home crowd and losing all sense of attacking discipline.
"You impose your game, but that doesn't mean you go crazy and send everyone forward," Hamlett said. "It's still about playing the way we like to play."
To that end, Hamlett's biggest concern will be once again coping with the defensive pressure applied by the Revs, in particular that of midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz. The Fire made some headway in this regard during the latter stages of the first leg, possessing the ball better and creating some dangerous chances in the second half. But combating this pressure is where the home-field advantage may have its biggest impact. Hamlett is hoping the bigger dimensions of Toyota Park will give his team the requisite time and space to galvanize its attack, and allow Blanco more room to find the pockets he is normally so adept at exploiting. But Hamlett isn't placing all of his chips on the fact that his side are at home.
"We have to be better with the ball," Hamlett said. "I think we have to show more patience when we move the ball from side to side, and at times understand that we have to play in their end a little bit more."
So now it's down to the final 90 minutes of the series, and the team that's more willful -- and wily -- should prevail.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.