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Thursday, August 13

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Fire Mon Oct 13 2008

Playoff Bound

The Chicago Fire only needed a tie to secure a spot in the playoffs. Their opponent, the Columbus Crew, only needed a tie to seal up the best regular season record in the league. So it was predictable that the game would end in a draw. That was about the only predictable thing about Sunday afternoon's game, though.

What could have been a tense, defensive struggle turned out to be a thrilling, offensive, end to end affair. After going ahead through a Brian McBride goal, the Fire continued to create chances only to be let down by poor defending from a usually solid backline going from 1-0 up to 2-1 down within a minute. A poor clearance from the usually perfect Wilman Conde led to Columbus midfielder Eddie Gaven's 60th minute goal and then the Fire got caught napping off a counter-attack from a corner in the 61st. Notably, both goals came after near misses from the Fire. It was that kind of game. Even after the Fire leveled the score at 2-2 through McBride again, both teams pushed for the winner when a tie suited their purposes.

Check out the full breakdown after the break.

McBride Getting on Track
When the Fire brought Brian McBride in a few months ago, many thought their offensive problems were over. After he only scored two goals in the past eight games, it was getting worrying. Would there be enough time for McBride, as a target forward, to develop chemistry with a team that had been used to playing passes behind the defense for strikers like Chad Barrett and Andy Herron? Sunday, the Fire looked like they made the adjustment, feeding in the kind of crosses that McBride's made his reputation finishing off. After the game, McBride described himself as haunted that he hadn't actually finished a couple of other chances*, which says something about the 36 year old's continued hunger for the game.

Blanco and Mapp Getting It Together
Many of those crosses for McBride came off the left foot of Justin Mapp. The midfielder has not been at his best this season and many have speculated that he and Cuahtemoc Blanco aren't a good match in midfield. On Sunday they stayed out of each other's way, with Mapp sticking to the left side of the field for the most part, while Blanco either drifted right or deep into the center of midfield. Blanco, for his part, managed more of an impact on the game than he had in any recent game excluding LA, pulling off his patented CuautemiƱa move, playing a few very good passes and hitting the free kick that led to McBride's equalizer. While Mapp looked more like the Mapp of 2006, it's worth noting that he wasn't exactly a complete player back then either. He didn't track back on the play that led to Columbus' second goal (embarrassingly, Chris Rolfe covered twice as much ground in an attempt to cover for Mapp) and he faded out of the game around the 70th minute.

Sparks Off The Bench
Of course, when a player like Mapp (or Blanco) fades from the game, the Fire have plenty of guys that can sub on to bring a spark late in the game. Both Mike Banner and Patrick Nyarko, recovered from a knee injury, added pace and energy to the Fire attack when they subbed on against Columbus. Add Marco Pappa, who was away on World Cup Qualifying duty with Guatemala, and you have a lot of impact players potentially coming off that bench.

The Next Two Games Don't Matter, Except That They Do
With the draw, the Fire moved into second place in the Eastern Conference. They'll definitely face the dreaded New England Revolution in the playoffs. The only question remaining is whether they'll do it as the 2nd place team or the 3rd place team. In his post-game press conference, Fire Coach Denis Hamlet mentioned wanting the team to finish strongly and nail down 2nd place and home field advantage. "Home field advantage" doesn't matter much though. All it means is that the second game of a two-game playoff season will be played at Toyota Park. What matters is that the Fire continue to play competitively and go into the playoffs at their peak.

*Hey, remember a couple of weeks when I whined about my problems getting Media Credentials from the Fire PR department? Turns out they read this, it was all a big misunderstanding, and were happy to give me a press pass. So expect more player and coach reactions in the future.

 
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