After the Fire last met Western Conference leaders Chivas USA in MLS action on May 28th, Chicago was the talk of the league. Not only had the Fire just pulled off a thrilling 3-2 come from behind victory over Chivas - who at the time were MLS leaders - but they also extended their season-opening unbeaten streak to 11 games. The Fire had built a comfortable lead in the Eastern Conference and appeared to be on the fast-track to a successful season.
Since that early summer night in L.A. though, the Fire's campaign has taken a turn for the worse. Injuries, national team call-ups and Bakary Soumare's midseason departure decimated Chicago's roster and the team struggled, compiling a disappointing 5-7-6 record in their 18 league matches since.
Now, with one regular season game remaining, the second-place Fire is still looking to qualify for the playoffs and they need a win or a tie against postseason bound Chivas USA Thursday night at Toyota Park to clinch.
"Our guys know what's at stake," said Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett. "I think our guys are excited. We're at home, it's the last game of the regular season and if we can take care of business we can enjoy the weekend and figure out who we play in the first round of the playoffs."
The Fire, who has gone winless in their last six matches, has had Chivas's number this year, going 2-0-0 against them in all competitions.
"Obviously they're a very good team," Hamlett said of Chivas USA, who are part of a three way tie atop the Western Conference table. "They're a very good passing team...and they have some big dangerous players. We have to make sure that we take away their space and that we make it hard for them."
Hamlett said that the Fire's veteran players should help diffuse any pressure the team may be feeling ahead of the crucial match.
"We've got guys who have played in World Cups, [Brian McBride has even] played in a game where his team needed to win to stay in the English Premier League so we have guys on our team who have [been in pressure packed situations before]," Hamlett said. "We feel we have enough veteran guys and enough experienced young guys that are ready for this challenge and are ready to step up."
Another interesting storyline surrounding this game (as if it needed another one...) is the referee. Terry Vaughn will be the man in the middle for Thursday night's match. That's the same Terry Vaughn that called three penalty kicks, handed out 11 yellow cards and one red in the May 28th meeting between the two clubs.
"Whenever you play a team that's physical you have to make sure you match them on that end," Hamlett said. "With all the games coming down to the wire... we have to make sure we're ready for that. As far as the referee goes, after last weekend's situation were kind of just blocking out the referees, but at the end of the day we just go out and compete and play hard and hopefully we'll get a call here or there."
Ok, well I've had enough of setting this one up. Which means it's time for the...
I'll go ahead and say the Fire and Chivas play to a 1-1 draw. Cuauhtemoc Blanco gets the goal for the Fire from the penalty spot and Maykel Galindo will net for Chivas.
Commenter DJ won last week's prediction contest, correctly forecasting a 0-0 draw at New England. The win makes it two in a row for dj, who very well could be leading the overall prediction standings. See if you can beat him this week.
Former-Fire midfielder Chris Armas will be inducted into the "Ring of Fire" Hall of Fame at halftime. Armas played with the club from its inception in 1998 to 2007 and ranks second all-time in assists for the team.