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Eastern Conference Championship

Fire hoping to cruise past Columbus

Henry Ring and the Fire take on the Columbus Crew again Wednesday.

Photo Credit: 
Tony Quinn/MLS/WireImage.com

SOLDIER FIELD

CHICAGO, Ill.

7:30 pm CT (HDNet; FSN-Ohio)

The Columbus Crew once again have a chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the MLS Cup Playoffs with a victory against the Chicago Fire - they received the help they needed last weekend with the MetroStars loss, but the late equalizer from the 10-man Fire kept the celebration on hold. Still, the Crew extended their unbeaten streak to 15 games, matching the MLS record. The current Eastern Conference champion Fire are still three points clear on their hold for a playoff place, and with a positive result against the Crew, could secure a playoff spot if the New England Revolution fail to knock off D.C. United at home on the weekend.

REFEREE: Terry Vaughn. SAR (bench): Kermit Quisenberry; JAR (opposite): Bill Dittmar; 4th: Abbey Okulaja

MLS Career: 44 games; FC/gm: 31.5; Y/gm: 3.8; R: 13; pens: 12

Games involving Fire: P10 W6 L2 T2; FC/gm: 32.2; Y/gm: 4.3; R: 3; pens: 3

Games involving Crew: P8 W4 L2 T2; FC/gm: 32.1; Y/gm: 3.8; R: 3; pens: 2

INJURY REPORT: COLUMBUS CREW - OUT: MD Ross Paule (post concussion symptoms); DF Stephen Herdsman (L groin strain) ... CHICAGO FIRE - OUT: FW Ante Razov (R ankle bone spur); MD Justin Mapp (R knee LCL sprain); MD Logan Pause (R foot stress fracture); QUESTIONABLE: MD Chris Armas (R knee surgery); DF Evan Whitfield (L knee contusion)

INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: CHI: Andy Herron (Costa Rica, Oct. 9 v Guatemala); Andy Williams, Damani Ralph (Jamaica, Oct. 9 v Panama); Dipsy Selolwane (Botswana, Oct. 9 v Kenya) ... CLB: Frankie Hejduk, Tony Sanneh (USA, Oct. 9 v El Salvador); Erick Scott (Costa Rica, Oct. 9 v Guatemala)

SUSPENDED: CHI: Nate Jaqua (through Oct. 9)

YELLOW PERIL: CHI: Jim Curtin (18 CP) ... CLB: Tony Sanneh (8 CP in 2 gms)

HEAD-TO-HEAD

ALL-TIME (23 meetings): Fire 12 wins (1 shootout), 40 goals ... Crew 7 wins (0 shootout), 40 goals ... 4 draws

IN CHICAGO (11 meetings): Fire 8 wins (0 shootout), 23 goals ... Crew 2 wins (0 shootout), 14 goals ... 1 draws

  • This is the fourth and final league meeting between the teams this season, the second of the two at Soldier Field. The Crew won the first two meetings of the season between the clubs - including the first in Chicago - before they played to a thrilling 3-3 draw just four days ago in Columbus.
  • Damani Ralph opened the scoring for the visitors when he converted from the penalty spot after just 14 minutes when he was tripped up going to goal, but the tide of the match changed on 36 minutes when Chicago's Nate Jaqua was sent off for a second bookable offense.
  • Referee Kevin Terry then had a third major impact on the match just before the interval, whistling for a penalty after Jim Curtin pulled back Duncan Oughton in the area, Kyle Martino hammering home from the spot.
  • It didn't take long for the Crew to utilize the advantage, Jeff Cunningham getting behind the Fire defense to chip home in the 56th minute, but Andy Herron pulled the Fire back just three minutes with a remarkable strike, curling a tremendous effort into the upper corner from well outside the area.
  • Cunningham was then credited with his second goal of the night just five minutes later, his low drive across the face of the goal toward the far corner given a final touch by Curtin as he tried to clear from a crowded goalmouth. But Herron canceled that out again with another wonderful goal, heading a pass over a defender to himself before clincally pounding it past Crew 'keeper Jon Busch (80).
  • Columbus grabbed a 2-0 victory in the first Crew Stadium meeting on July 3 as Edson Buddle and Jeff Cunningham scored goals a minute apart just before halftime.
  • Buddle ran on to a Ross Paule chip over the Fire back line, expertly chipping over 'keeper Henry Ring as the flag stayed down (43), then barely a minute later Cunningham's blast from inside the box took a wicked deflection before flying high past Ring inside his right-hand post.
  • The Crew went into Soldier Field on May 23 and came away with a 3-1 victory. Jeff Cunningham put the Crew ahead (32), converting his own penalty after he was held back in the area by Jim Curtin. But after the break, Damani Ralph expertly brought down a looped Andy Williams ball into the area before finishing with power (49).
  • Yet it took Columbus just six minutes to answer, Kyle Martino skipping through a couple of defenders and rounding goalkeeper Henry Ring to slot home. Then four minutes later, Michael Ritch collected a good pass from Eric Denton before hammering a high drive past Ring for his first professional goal.
  • The teams also met in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, eventual losing finalist Fire claiming a 2-1 victory in Columbus on July 20.
  • Frankie Hejduk headed home a Chris Wingert cross to give the home side a 27th-minute lead, but Damani Ralph pulled the Fire level from the penalty spot in the 66th minute after Duncan Oughton hacked down Andy Williams in the box. Then in extra-time of the fractious encounter, Edson Buddle was sent off in the 97th minute for a foul on Logan Pause, and nine minutes later Ralph sent the Fire through to the quarterfinals, nodding home a lofted Chris Armas free kick.
  • A year ago, despite their finishing positions, the clubs split the season series with each winning one match and two drawn, with all four encounters coming in the second half of the campaign.
  • The clubs played to a 2-2 draw on Aug. 13 in Columbus, thanks to Damani Ralph's dramatic strike which was selected as Pepsi MLS Goal of the Year (Buddle 47, West 52 - Razov 34 pen, Ralph 90). They then played to a 1-1 draw in Chicago on Sept. 6 (Bocanegra 66 - Buddle 37).
  • The Fire then won 2-0 on Oct. 10 at Soldier Field (Jaqua 11, Razov 49), before Columbus finished off a disappointing season with a 6-2 win at home in the final regular season match as the Fire ran out a largely reserve team (McBride 49, 67; Cunningham 54; Buddle 74, 85; Garcia 90 - Selolwane 3, Marsch 25 pen).
  • Before last season, the Fire had won the last three season series between the clubs, winning nine of 12 matches between the two from 2000 through 2002.
  • The Fire had lost just once at home to Columbus in 10 league meetings before this season, that loss coming on Sept. 23, 1999 (1-2). They also defeated the Crew in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup final at Soldier Field.
  • Ante Razov is the Fire's all-time leader against the Crew with 11 goals, 2 assists. Of current Fire players, only Damani Ralph (3 goals), Jesse Marsch (2 goals, 3 assists) and Andy Herron (2 goals) have more than one goal against Columbus; Chris Armas and Andy Williams each have 5 assists v the Crew, while Marsch has 3.
  • Jeff Cunningham (13 goals, 5 assists) and Edson Buddle (6 goals, 4 assists) have been very effective against the Fire, combining for nearly half of the club's goals all-time v Chicago. Kyle Martino has hit for three goals and Simon Elliott and Ross Paule have also hit for two v Chicago, but none of Paule's or Elliott's came while playing with Columbus.
  • Coaches record: Dave Sarachan v CLB: P6 W1 L2 D3 ... Greg Andrulis vs. CHI: P13 W4 L6 D3

    COLUMBUS CREW

    The Columbus Crew fell short in their attempt to secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but still extended their unbeaten streak to 15 games, tying the MLS record set by the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Crew are now five points ahead of the second place MetroStars with 44 points from 27 matches, and can ensure the road to MLS Cup 2004 goes through Columbus with a win against the Fire.

  • Columbus head coach Greg Andrulis made two changes to the team that defeated D.C. United 1-0 at Crew Stadium the previous weekend.
  • Ross Paule was suffering from recurring problems from concussion suffered earlier in the season, meaning Danny Szetela was given his first professional start. Edson Buddle left the team late Friday after the death of his grandfather, meaning Jeff Cunningham returned to the starting lineup for the first time in 11 games.
  • Here's Andrulis's team (3-5-2): Jon Busch - Duncan Oughton, Robin Fraser, Chad Marshall - Frankie Hejduk, Tony Sanneh, Simon Elliott, Danny Szetela (Manny Lagos 78), Chris Wingert (David Testo 59) - Kyle Martino, Jeff Cunningham.
  • "You have to give Andy Herron credit. Their second goal, his first, was a terrific goal and the third goal we made a couple mistakes," Andrulis said. "I think the last time we gave up three goals was the first game of the season. If we can go 29 games between giving up three goals, I don't think that is too bad.
  • In addition to Cunningham ending his streak of starting on the substitutes' bench (his last was July 24), he also scored for the first time since July 3 - the first game of the Crew's unbeaten streak. Cunningham was credited with the Crew's third despite Fire defender Jim Curtin applying the final touch.
  • "It was a shot. I am not passing the ball in that situation. I have been yelled at too many times. As a forward, I am supposed to be selfish in front of the goal. I was trying to be more aggressive in the box (Saturday) night, trying to shoot more," Cunningham said.
  • Andrulis said: "I thought he did well. Setting up the third goal was huge. We need to do a better job linking him. I don't know if we gave him enough touches,"
  • The unbeaten streak matched the Galaxy's skein over the end of the 1997 season and start of the '98 campaign (Sept. 7, 1997 - May 17, 1998). The Crew's streak is the longest in league history within a single season.
  • The Crew concluded their home season with the match against the Fire last weekend, ending their home campaign with just two losses in 15 matches, undefeated over their last nine (6-0-3). But Andrulis attributes the team's performance this year to their work on their travels - and they finish the season with three road games.
  • "The difference this year is we're not giving away points," Andrulis said. "This team is special. We're such a good defensive team, we know we have a chance to get a result whether we're home or away."
  • Two years ago, the Crew traveled to Chicago in the season finale needing just a point to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference - and lost. The New England Revolution the resulting home-field advantage they won to good measure in advancing to the MLS Cup Final.
  • "It's pretty much a thing of the past, but the way I look at it is that everything we've gone through - losing that game, missing the playoffs last year - is preparation for this," Kyle Martino said. "This is the best chance since I've been here to do something really special. All the things from the past two years are definitely motivation to get it down now."
  • The 17-year-old Szetela was the youngest player to start for the team in Crew history. "I thought he was terrific," Andrulis said. "I really thought he had an excellent game for first start. I think we can all see what lies for him."

    CHICAGO FIRE

    The Chicago Fire maintained some breathing room in their claim on the fourth and final playoff spot available in the Eastern Conference by snatching the late point last weekend. The Fire are now in fourth place in the East on 33 points from 28 matches, three ahead of the Revolution with two to play for both teams - and with a positive result at Soldier Field, could have a playoff spot clinched depending on New England's result at the weekend.

  • Chicago Fire coach Dave Sarachan made two changes to the team that defeated the New England Revolution 2-0 the previous weekend at Gillette Stadium, as both Chris Armas and Andy Williams were suspended. Scott Buete came into a holding role in midfield, while Craig Capano played a more forward role behind the front two.
  • Here's Sarachan's team (3-5-2): Henry Ring - Evan Whitfield (Alexandre Boucicaut 70), Jim Curtin, C.J. Brown - Nate Jaqua, Scott Buete, Craig Capano, Jesse Marsch, Kelly Gray - Andy Herron (Dipsy Selolwane 89), Damani Ralph.
  • "It was a playoff atmosphere and I'm very proud of my team. To come away (with a point) with the adversity we went through tonight was remarkable and it will go a long way as we move along," Sarachan said.
  • Herron hit for two goals for the second consecutive start, his first two MLS starts after coming on as a halftime substitute in his league debut on Sept. 18.
  • "He's a real forward and he came through huge for us tonight. We're obviously pleased to have him. He goes to Costa Rica next week, so the timing is not good, but he's been great for us in the games he's been with us," Sarachan said.
  • Herron was named was the Honda MLS Player of the Week for the second consecutive week in balloting by the Professional Soccer Reporters Association. He becomes the sixth player in MLS history to win the award in back-to-back weeks, the last Mark Chung in 2002.
  • "I just work for my team and work for the guys and try to score on all the opportunities I have," Herron said. "That's been my mentality since I've come to Chicago and I think if I keep on working like this we'll get into the playoffs."
  • The Fire managed to claim the result despite missing perhaps their most key players in the midfield. "It's hard to play without Chris [Armas] because he's the anchor in the center of the field, but Jesse [Marsch], [Craig] Capano and Scott Buete did well," said C.J. Brown. "They closed the center down as much as possible with what Columbus was bringing and were able to bring the ball forward. They didn't have to do too much offensively, but they did well defending, and that's what we needed."
  • The loss of Jaqua through suspension will cause a serious selection problem in attack for Sarachan. Every other player available for selection at the sharp end of the Fire formation will be out through international duty or injury (Ralph, Selolwane, Herron, Williams, Razov). The Fire have brought in Chris Carrieri and Greg Howes - currently attached to indoor sides - in for possible hardship loan for Wednesday's match.
  • Jim Curtin became the second Fire player in as many weeks to hit the century mark for league appearances in his start against the Crew. Evan Whitfield made league appearance No. 100 for his career the previous weekend v New England.

    PLAYOFF SCENARIOS

  • The Columbus Crew have already clinched a place in the MLS Cup Playoffs, and with a victory against the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, the Crew clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
  • The Chicago Fire clinch a place in the MLS Cup Playoffs with a victory against the Crew on Wednesday AND a loss or a tie for the New England Revolution, or with a tie against the Crew and a loss for the Revolution.
  • Following are the tiebreaking procedures if teams are level in the standings:
    a. Head-to-head competition against all other teams equal in points, based on highest points-per-game average.

    b. Overall team goal differential.

    c. Total goals scored.

    d-f. Tiebreakers a-c are applied to each team's regular-season road games only.

    g-i. Tiebreakers a-c are applied to each team's regular-season home games only.

    j. Fewest disciplinary points

    k. Coin flip.

    As of Oct. 2, here is how the MLS Cup playoffs would have looked:

  • SERIES A: (E1) Columbus vs. (E4) Chicago
  • SERIES B: (E2) MetroStars vs. (E3) D.C. United
  • SERIES C: (W1) Kansas City vs. (W4) San Jose
  • SERIES D: (W2) Los Angeles vs. (W3) Colorado
  • EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP: Winner of CLB/CHI vs. Winner of MET/DC
  • WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP: Winner of KC/SJ vs. Winner of COL/LA
  • MLS CUP 2004: Winners of Conference Championship Games

    Series A - D played under home-and-home, total goals format ... If teams tied on aggregate, 30-minute, golden-goal overtime period follows, then followed by penalty kicks (if necessary) to determine Series winner ... Higher seed holds home-field advantage for Game 2 of Series ... Conference Championship Games and MLS Cup, if tied after 90 minutes, determined by 30-minute, golden-goal overtime ... If neither team scores during that time, the series will be decided via penalty kick shootout held according to FIFA regulations

    Series A-D - Game One

    Weekend of Friday, October 22 - Sunday, October 24 @ LOWER-SEED home site

    Series A-D - Game Two (+ 30-minute golden-goal period, if tied on aggregate goals)

    Weekend of Friday, October 29 - Friday, October 31 @ HIGHER-SEED home site

    Eastern Conference Championship / Nov. 5 / 6 / 7

    Western Conference Championship / Nov. 5 / 6 / 7

    MLS Cup 2004 / Sun., Nov. 14 - ABC / 3:30 PM ET - The Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.

    This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer.


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