With only five regular season games left in their season, every remaining match is critical for the Chicago Fire. Some matches, however, are more important than others and this Sunday's battle at Toyota Park against the defending champion Columbus Crew (2 p.m. on My50/Telefutura) certainly fits that description.
The first place Crew and the second place Fire have been fighting each other all season for the Eastern Conference's top spot and this weekend's game could very well decide who enters the MLS playoffs - which begin on October 29th - as the East's top seed. A win at home would vault the Fire into a first place tie with the Crew, who are leading MLS with 42 points.
"It's a very big game," said Fire goalie Jon Busch. "We've been chasing them for most of the season and we're right there in a good spot... it'll be a good test for us."
The Fire and the Crew have already met twice on the year, with both matches ending in ties. The first match between the two sides saw the Fire steal a point with two late goals in Columbus on April 25th while the teams July 11th game in Bridgeview was more of a defensive battle, ending scoreless.
"They're a good team in good form right now," Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett said of the Crew. "They can get you from different sides, the right the left... and then set pieces [too.] They're a well balanced team and we have to make sure we have to bring our best game because that's what it's going to take."
So, with that said, here's a deeper look into a couple of key factors that could go a long way in determining the outcome of Sunday's match.
Here's what the injury picture is looking like for Sunday afternoon...
The Fire -
Out: Daniel Woolard (high ankle sprain), Tim Ward (metatarsal fracture)
Doubtful: Gonzalo Segares (MCL sprain)
Probable: John Thorrington (quadriceps strain)
The Crew -
Out: GK Andy Gruenebaum, DEF Chad Marshall
Which team is hurt more by the injuries? In my opinion, it has to be the Fire. Granted, Chad Marshall is a very important part of the Crew backline, but the Fire could very well be without three starters for Sunday's match and - given how evenly these teams matchup at full strength - that statistic is crucial.
It is also worth noting that both the Fire's Brian McBride and the Crew's Guillermo Barros Schelotto (MLS's reigning MVP) recently returned from injuries that kept them out for over a month each. If either of these players returns to their early season form on Sunday, watch out.
**Stopping the Crew's Wingers -**
Crew midfielders Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers have wreaked havoc on the flanks all season long and if the Fire is to win on Sunday afternoon, they must limit the impact of the Crew's two wingers.
"We have to make sure that our outside backs come ready," said Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett. "If you limit [Gaven's and Rogers's] ability to run at you in open space it gives you an advantage but if the game becomes open then they have freedom and they can do some harm. So it's got to be a balance. We have to be good with the ball."
The Fire's starting fullbacks - likely Mike Banner and Dasan Robinson - will shoulder most of the load when it comes to defending Gaven and Rogers and honestly that's a questionable matchup for the Fire. Dasan didn't look so great against Real Salt Lake's Fabian Espindola last Saturday night (especially in the second half...) and Mike Banner - despite his recent success in the role - isn't a true defender and it is unknown how he'll deal with the trickery of Gaven and Rogers. Hopefully the two will have a standout game for the Fire, because if the team can take Gaven and Rogers out of the match their task will be made a whole lot easier.
And now, finally, it's time for...
**The Prediction -**
I'll go out on a limb here and say the Fire and Crew will tie for the 5th time in the last two years on Sunday. It'll be a very close match that will have some late drama before finishing with a score of 1-1. Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Alejandro Moreno will score the goals.
Forza Rosso was the winner in last week's prediction contest, as he correctly called the Fire's 1-1 tie with Real Salt Lake. Let's see if Rosso can make it two in a row...
And now some links...
[Fire vs. Crew Match Recap (April 25th)](http://chicago.fire.mlsnet.com/news/team_news.jsp?ymd=20090425&content_id=244042&vkey=news_chf&fext=.jsp&team=t100)
[Fire vs. Crew Match Preview (July 11th)](http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/chicago-fire-confidential/2009/07/fire-vs-columbus-crew-match-preview.html)
[Fire vs. Crew Match Recap (July 11th)](http://chicago.fire.mlsnet.com/news/team_news.jsp?ymd=20090711&content_id=5829446&vkey=news_chf&fext=.jsp&team=t100)