OK – all bets are off. No TT, no Rallie – and no Badilla or Smith. It’s hard to imagine that the Revs can knock off the Fire, but stranger things have happened. And if you know me at all by this point in the season, I’m going to explain why I think it will happen.
I personally hope that Steve Nicol, at least for Game One, goes to a 3-5-2. As my broadcast cohort Greg Lalas consistently notes, Michael Parkhurst looks much more comfortable at the back in a three than he does in a flat four. That comfort factor will count for a lot against Brian McBride in this upcoming series.
The Revs didn’t see McBride in any of the three games they lost to Chicago this season. But lest you think that the former U.S. national team and Fulham FC star has made Chicago into an out-and-out juggernaut, consider this: after Chicago’s narrow 1-0 win over hapless Los Angeles on August 16 in McBride’s debut for his hometown team, the Fire went 3-4-2 in league play. That included losses to three non-playoffs teams (Colorado, Dallas and Toronto) and the only victories came over New York and L.A. (again).
Don’t get me wrong, McBride still has game and from an objective perspective he makes the Fire a much tougher team. Even when he doesn’t score, he’s so valuable in terms of his aerial prowess, his “stickiness” in the hold-up phase of play and his intelligent running and positioning. But he’s not the player he was three or four years ago.
This relates back to Parky. Think of how effectively Mike has learned to defend against Juan Pablo Angel, a forward who has a similar skill set to McBride’s (and is arguably more mobile). If Parkhurst can play the soft-cushion, bump-and-run style against McBride that he does against Angel, then he could contain McBride in this upcoming series.
Chicago’s regular season closer was a 5-2 win over the Red Bulls during which Chris Rolfe put in a Player-of-the-Week performance, scoring three goals in the first half. He’s someone the Revs always seem to have trouble tracking down in the attacking third, with his propensity to pop up in seams and shoot on moment’s notice. He’s the guy, more than McBride, who can drag defenders out of their spots. With Justin Mapp and John Thorrington flying on the wings it will be a lot for the likes of Mauricio Castro, Sainey Nyassi and Wells Thompson to deal with. All will need to track back and support the outside defenders, while still looking to take the initiative to get forward and keep Chicago pinned back. The Revs are at home, after all.
I’d be remiss to not mention Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The crafty number 10 tends to switch the effort on and off, and he appeared to fade as the season wore on, but with so much at stake in these conference semifinals you have to figure he’ll at least have moments. Without making any gratuitous references to the way the Revs comported themselves against Kansas City last Saturday, they need to hold it together when, inevitably, Blanco tries to dupe the referee or wind up the opposition. The bottom line is he’s a dangerous attacking player who could make a difference if he’s not attended to closely and intelligently.
If you’re a Fire fan, it’s the once-vaunted defense that troubles you about your team. The stingiest team in MLS during the first 80 percent of the season, the Men in Red allowed 10 goals against in their last six games. All of a sudden, Jon Busch has looked beatable and the back line less impenetrable. So while Gonzalo Segares is still arguably having a Best XI type season, and Wilman Conde and Bakare Soumare are big, tough guys, the Revs may have an advantage with that corps’ espirt somewhat damaged and the speed of Nyassi, Kenny Mansally and Kheli Dube torturing them for 90 minutes.
So yes, the Revs are slumping into the postseason. Yes, they’ve lost two superstars to injury for the series and two starters to suspension for Game One. But these matches tend to come down to a couple of key moments, and with some young, hungry players looking to make their mark for Steve Nicol, they could make the difference in those vital instances. You know they are going to give it their all.
Check out Planet Mikey on WEEI tonight at 9 p.m. I’ll be on with Mike Adams talking Revs-Fire and more. Also, I’m doing a short playoffs preview stint on NESN Sportsdesk at 10 and 11 p.m. Revs communications tells me the TV news media was out in force today aftert training, so tune into the news to get some good Revs coverage and please let your favorite station know you want to see more MLS!