We should have known all along that it would come down to this. The Fire and the Revolution, facing off in the playoff's for the eighth time in the Fire's 12 year history. It's one of the biggest rivalries in the league, sure to be full of nastiness and with no room spared for niceties. The series figures to be one of the most exciting Conference Semifinal matchups and could be one of the better pairings of the 2009 postseason.
Here are five questions I have heading into the series.
**1. Will the Fire's Gonzalo Segares, John Thorrington, Wilman Conde and Tim Ward return from injury?**
Both the Fire and the Revolution have been hampered all year by injuries but the Fire -- in contrast to their Eastern Conference rivals -- could see several of their key players return in time for this Saturday's series opener.
Defender Gonzalo Segares, who hasn't played since spraining his left MCL on August 9th, is listed as probable on this week's injury report and could very likely return (at least to the bench) this Saturday. Segares coming back into the fold would be a huge boost for the Fire who -- despite recent defensive success -- have struggled to replace his dual threat capability out of the left back spot.
Equally important to the Fire is the return of center back Wilman Conde from a right hip contusion. Conde, who is listed as questionable on this week's injury report, is a rock in the back line for the Fire and his aerial presence would serve the Fire well against the Revolution's big attacking duo of Edgaras Jankauskas (who is 6'4") and Sharlie Joseph (6'3").
Midfielder John Thorrington, who is also listed as questionable on the injury report, is looking to return this week from a groin injury that has kept him out of the lineup since August 29th. The Fire could certainly use Thorrington's feisty veteran presence (provided that doesn't get him into card trouble) in what figures to be both a very physical and emotional series.
Defender Tim Ward, who has been out since August 5th with a broken left metatarsal, is looking like he'll be out for this Saturday's game but could possibly return to the Fire in time for November 7th's second leg of the series. Prior to his injury, Ward (who is listed as doubtful) had been a revelation at right back for the Fire, performing very well and meshing nicely with his new teammates.
Make no mistake about it, any of these players returning to the Fire line up would strengthen a good Fire roster and make it that much harder for New England to get by Chicago and into the second round.
**2. Will the Fire be able to finish their chances?**
A common theme in Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett's postgame talks in recent weeks has been the Fire's inability to finish the chances they have created. The team has looked pretty good in build up and they've given themselves plenty of opportunities to score (I mean, they did have 14 corner kicks in their last game alone...) but they've only scored once in their last three games and that is a trend that is concerning.
The Fire will have to be more efficient around the net if they want to get by the Revolution in this series, as Stevie Nicol's bunch will come out looking to play a disciplined game and not yield a lot of opportunities. A probable return of Cuauhtemoc Blanco to the starting lineup (he has been dealing with a hamstring injury) should bolster the Fire's finishing but regardless of Temo's presence the Fire simply needs to
find the back of the net more often if they want to see their hopes of winning a MLS Cup go beyond the first round.
**3. How will the Revolution's young defenders hold up?**
Rookie defenders Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston have been excellent for the Revolution in their first MLS campaign. Despite their success in the back four though, both Barnes (who started all 30 games this year) and Alston (an outside back who started 26 times) could be getting a little fatigued and the Fire should look to exploit both that and their playoff inexperience from the opening whistle on Saturday.
I would like to see the Fire go straight at the two rookies -- Alston off the dribble and Barnes through the air -- and see if they aren't feeling any postseason jitters at the beginning of the series. After all, an early away goal could make all the difference in this one.
**4. What will the Fire get from Marco Pappa?**
Pappa, a 21 year old Guatemalan winger, started off the 2009 season strong but has tailed off a bit in recent months -- perhaps due to fatigued caused by this year being his first "full" professional season. But with the playoffs comes a clean slate and if Pappa can return to the dangerous form he showed in the first half of the year, watch out.
**5. Could these be Chris Rolfe's final games as a member of the Fire?**
Regardless of what happens in this series, midfielder/forward Chris Rolfe's 5-year tenure as a member of the Fire will shortly be coming to a close as he is moving to Danish club Aalborg BK in the January transfer window. But you can be sure that Rolfe won't want his time with Chicago to end against long time nemesis New England -- who has bounced Rolfe from the playoffs in three of his four years with the Fire.
Look for Chris to play with a little extra heart and determination in the series as you can be sure he wants to add a championship before he closes this chapter of his Fire career.