The Fire came into last Sunday's Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the New England Revolution with high hopes that they could leave Boston with a result.
And though the Fire got off to the right start in the series opener - scoring an early goal to put the pressure on New England - the team was undone by a pair of defensive lapses and ultimately fell to the Revolution 2-1.
The loss turns Saturday's Game 2 at Toyota Park (7:30 on Fox Soccer Channel) into a "must-win" for the Fire, who will advance to the Conference Finals against Salt Lake with a two (or more) goal victory at the end of regulation Saturday night. If the Fire is ahead by a single goal at the end of 90 minutes, the teams will move into an extra time period consisting of two 15 minute halves tacked onto the end of the match. If the sides are still deadlocked after extra time, they will move into a penalty kick shootout - in which the Fire is 0-1 this year.
"The pressure is on for us to win," said Fire midfielder Logan Pause. "But I think we've got enough experience and leadership to kind of harness that in. We're excited."
Both of New England's Game 1 goals were scored off of set pieces and the Fire will need to improve their dead ball defending if they want to bounce their longtime rivals from the playoffs for the second year in a row.
"Defensively we've got to be more focused and concentrated on man marking and staying on our players," said Fire center back - and captain - C.J. Brown. "But I think if we play the same way we did last game with a lot more concentration on the set plays we'll be alright."
Another key to slowing down the New England attack is containing midfielder Shalrie Joseph. Joseph, who is one of three finalists for the league MVP, has scored twice against the Fire this year - with the latest tally coming in the 75th minute last Sunday.
"We know that Shalrie Joseph is an extremely dangerous player," said Pause. "He's scored a lot of goals this year but he's also a guy that moves the ball. He's active, he's a big body and he's kind of the heart of their team. We need to keep our same mentality of trying to minimize what he can do."
Despite being in a do-or-die situation, the Fire is still confident that they can pull out the game - and the series.
"We just have to go out with the mindset that we're going to win this game," said Brown. "That's what everybody's focused on right now. We think we're going to win as long as we go in with that attitude."
If the Fire fails to advance to the Conference Final, Saturday's match will likely be the last in a Chicago uniform for Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe. Both Blanco and Rolfe will be leaving the Fire in January, with Blanco returning to Mexican side Veracruz
and Rolfe heading to Danish club Aalborg BK.
John Thorrington could return from injury to play in this match, though the chances of Gonzalo Segares, Tim Ward and Wilman Conde playing are much less likely.
Should the Fire get by the Revolution they will take on Real Salt Lake at home for the
Eastern Conference Final. Salt Lake, who snuck into the playoffs at the last second, defeated Supporter's Shield winners the Columbus Crew in a first round upset.
But enough with all this formality, it's time for the...
It all comes down to this for the Fire. After starting out the year on a promising note and struggling somewhat down the stretch, they have one game left to prove that they are worthy of an Eastern Conference Finalist's spot. Will they be up to the challenge and pull off a come-from-behind series victory?
In my opinion? No.
I think this is the end of the road for the Fire. I think the team will play one of their more inspired games of the season but that poor finishing and one defensive lapse - two hallmarks of the Fire's 2009 - will come back to haunt them. I see the Fire winning the actual game 2-1 but missing a few sitters in extra time only to fall to the Revolution in penalty kicks. I'll say Rolfe gets his second tally of the series in the first half, followed by a Pappa strike which will be negated by a Kheli Dube goal.
This could be the last prediction contest of the year, so make sure to get your entry in before game time tomorrow. Not a single person correctly predicted a Fire loss last week though several commenters predicted 1-1 or 2-2 draws so I'll give the second to last award to those guys - congrats Brian C and DDTT5583.
*(Edit -- commenter dj did pick the Fire to lose, so he actually is the winner of last week's prediction contest. Sorry for raising your hopes Brian C and DDTT5583.)*
I'll be doing an all-day blog in the build up to the game tomorrow so be sure to check back for that.