After up and down regular seasons that saw one team consistently dissatisfied with its results and one team barely scrape its way into the playoffs, it's only fitting that the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake take each other on. Both teams will enter the Eastern Conference Final feeling that they have something to prove - Chicago wanting to live up to the hype that built up prior to and during the season and Salt Lake wanting to prove they're first round win over Columbus was more than merely a fluke.
Here are four questions that should go a long way towards determining the outcome of the game.
**1 - Which team has the mental edge?**
There is no doubt that both teams are bringing significant momentum into the game, Chicago with it's come from behind series victory over New England last week and Real Salt Lake with their shocking first round upset of the defending champion Crew.
But which team will best carry that momentum into Saturday night's match?
For an answer, I'll take a look back to last year's Western Conference Final, which Real Salt Lake ultimately dropped to New York. In that game (which has some very eerie parallels to this one...) the Red Bulls were able to go to Utah and steal the win from RSL though despite RSL being home favorites. Fast forward to 2009 and Head Coach Jason Kreis finds his team in a similar position to New York's last season. RSL is now the hot underdog that is carrying a chip on its shoulder heading into the game with the Fire being the home favorite that took the tough road - and celebrated after conquering that path - in getting to the Conference Final.
For the reasons above, coupled with the fact that Jason Kreis and midfielder Andy Williams reek of confidence heading into the game, I'm going to say that RSL has the slight mental edge in this one - which should play a enormous factor in the match.
**2 - What will the Fire get from Cuauhtemoc Blanco?**
One thing that I can almost say for certain is that Blanco will - at some point - leave a mark on the match. How often he makes an imprint (and whether that imprint is positive or negative for the Fire...) remains to be seen though. If Temo comes out with the same intensity and passion that he put on display in Game 2 of the Conference Semfinals then Salt Lake better have a good gameplan in store for him because he'll be looking to wreak havoc. If Blanco doesn't come out with that same mindset though, the Fire's attack will likely drop down a step from what we saw last Saturday night against the Revolution and Chicago could be in for a rough night at Toyota Park.
I fully expect that Blanco will attack the match with everything he has. Watching his inspired play on Saturday really made me think that he will do everything he can to end his tenure in Chicago with a championship so I don't expect to come out flat now.
**3 - Will the Fire slow down Robbie Findley?**
Salt Lake's speedy striker, the 24-year-old Findley has been red hot lately, scoring four goals in his last three games and even providing an assist in RSL's last match. Findley is a master at creating off of the counterattack and the Fire will have to pay close attention to him (especially in situations where they are vulnerable to the counter - which they have struggled against all year) or he could make it a very long night for Chicago.
Denis Hamlett emphasized being aggressive and preventing the midfield from having the necessary time to play Findley through as methods to slow him down and - given the way the Fire midfield controlled the game against New England - you have to feel pretty good about that. However it only takes one ball slipped through for Findley to take advantage so the Fire must remain aware of him at all times throughout the 90 minutes.
**4 - What will the Toyota Park crowd be like?**
The atmosphere at a sold out Toyota Park for last weekend's game against the Revolution was the best I've seen it at Toyota Park so far. All of the fans there did a great job of making noise and boosting the team when they needed it and by all indications Saturday night's game should be no different in terms of the size of the crowd. The game will also be the first Conference Final the Fire has hosted since 2003, so I'm expecting the crowd (and the players) will be extremely up for this one. It should be yet another great atmosphere and it should push the Fire on throughout the match.
At the latest I'll be back tomorrow morning with a match preview so check back for that tomorrow and for possible updates in between. Until then, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.