COLUMBUS CREW STADIUM
7:30 pm ET (FSN-Chi; FSN-Ohio)
The Columbus Crew head into this home-and-home series with the Chicago Fire riding a 14-game unbeaten streak (one game from the MLS record) knowing that with a victory on Saturday - combined with a MetroStars loss to D.C. United - they will guarantee the road to MLS Cup 2004 will pass through Columbus. The Fire come in with a little more breathing room in their bid for a playoff place - a victory against the Crew, and the failure of the New England Revolution to claim the maximum points against the Dallas Burn, and the current Eastern Conference champions will have the chance to defend their title.
REFEREE: Kevin Terry. SAR (bench): Rob Fereday; JAR (opposite): Favio Tovar; 4th: Andrew Chapin
MLS Career: 99 games; FC/gm: 30.4; Y/gm: 2.7; R: 32; pens: 41
Games involving Crew: P22 W9 L8 T5; FC/gm: 31.5; Y/gm: 3.1; R: 7; pens: 7
Games involving Fire: P20 W8 L8 T4; FC/gm: 31.5; Y/gm: 3.1; R: 9; pens: 9
INJURY REPORT: COLUMBUS CREW - OUT: DF Stephen Herdsman (L groin strain) ... CHICAGO FIRE - OUT: FW Ante Razov (R ankle bone spur); MD Justin Mapp (R knee LCL sprain); DOUBTFUL: MD Logan Pause (R foot stress fracture); PROBABLE: MD Chris Armas (R knee surgery)
INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: none
SUSPENDED: CHI: Andy Williams (through Oct. 2); Chris Armas (through Oct. 2)
YELLOW PERIL: CHI: Jim Curtin (18 CP)
This is the third of four meetings between the teams this season, the second of the two at Crew Stadium, with the Crew having won the first two - one at each ground. They'll meet again in four days time at Soldier Field.
Columbus grabbed a 2-0 victory at home in the last 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.
Here's Greg Andrulis's team (3-4-1-2): Jon Busch - Nelson Akwari, Robin Fraser, Eric Denton - Chris Wingert (Jake Traeger 87), Simon Elliott, Ross Paule, Duncan Oughton - Kyle Martino - Edson Buddle (Michael Ritch 89), Jeff Cunningham (Erick Scott 89).
Here's Dave Sarachan's team (3-4-1-2): Henry Ring - Evan Whitfield, Jim Curtin, Kelly Gray - Justin Mapp (Sumed Ibrahim 77), Chris Armas, Logan Pause (Nate Jaqua 71), DaMarcus Beasley - Andy Williams - Damani Ralph, Ante Razov (Orlando Perez 80)
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.
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 Jesse Marsch (2 goals, 3 assists) and Damani Ralph (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 (11 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, Simon Elliott and Ross Paule have also hit for two goals v Chicago, but none of Paule's or Elliott's came while playing with Columbus.
Coaches record: Greg Andrulis vs. CHI: P12 W4 L6 D2 ... Dave Sarachan v CLB: P5 W1 L2 D2
ALL-TIME (22 meetings): Crew 7 wins (0 shootout), 37 goals ... Fire 12 wins (1 shootout), 37 goals ... 3 draws
IN COLUMBUS (11 meetings): Crew 5 wins (0 shootout), 23 goals ... Fire 4 wins (1 shootout), 14 goals ... 2 draws
Tony Sanneh scored his second goal since joining Columbus to give the home side victory against a 10-man United, the Crew stretching their unbeaten streak to 14 matches, one shy of the league record as they won their fourth consecutive match.
Sanneh's glancing header from a Simon Elliott free kick was the game's only goal, though Kyle Martino should have doubled the lead early in the second half when he hit the woodwork with the goal unguarded after rounding United 'keeper Nick Rimando.
"We've been working on the play a lot," Sanneh said. "We've been joking around about why we have to do it so much because it's pretty self-explanatory. I made the exact run I was supposed to. He made the exact ball he was supposed to."
United were reduced to 10 men just before the break when captain Ryan Nelsen was sent off for a second bookable offense in the half.
Crew head coach Greg Andrulis made no changes to the team that defeated the MetroStars 4-2 at Crew Stadium the previous Saturday.
Here's Andrulis's team (3-5-2): Jon Busch - Duncan Oughton (Nelson Akwari 88), Robin Fraser, Chad Marshall - Frankie Hejduk (Jeff Cunningham 63), Tony Sanneh, Ross Paule, Simon Elliott, Chris Wingert - Edson Buddle, Kyle Martino (David Testo 89).
"It wasn't pretty," said Busch, who recorded his ninth clean sheet of the season. "We got the win. That's the No. 1 priority right now."
With a victory or a draw, the Crew can equal the league-record unbeaten streak set by the Los Angeles Galaxy from Sept. 7, 1997 to May 17, 1998. "The streak doesn't lie," midfielder Manny Lagos said. "I think the depth of the team and how many different people have contributed to the streak maybe shows how strong we really are."
Three Crew players - Frankie Hejduk, Chris Wingert and Nelson Akwari - went into the United match on the verge of caution point accumulation, but after going a third consecutive match without being caution, they had five points removed under the "Good Behavior Incentive."
Hejduk said it affected - and will affect - his play: "I tried to stay on my feet a little more. I'm free now to get a good tackle," he said. "You get a team going sometimes with a yellow card for a hard tackle - it pumps the guys up. We could have used that the last game at some point, but in the back of my mind maybe I was holding back. I got a 'Get out of jail' card. Against Chicago, there are going to be some hard, clean tackles, for sure."
The Columbus Crew clinched home-field advantage in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs with a 1-0 victory against D.C. United at home on Saturday evening, extending their unbeaten streak to 14 games (one shy of the MLS record). The Crew are now four points ahead of the MetroStars with 43 points from 26 matches, and can ensure the road to MLS Cup 2004 goes through Columbus with a win AND a MetroStars loss to D.C. United.
New signing Andy Herron hit for two goals as the Fire pulled five points ahead of the Revolution at the foot of the Eastern Conference table, both teams with just three matches remaining on the season.
Fire captain Chris Armas - in his first league action after returning from knee surgery - twice played provider as Chicago moved to within a point of third place in the East.
Andy Williams first sent Armas in nearly alone, the longtime Fire campaigner sliding a square pass for Herron to tap into the wide-open goal after just seven minutes. Then Armas picked out the Costa Rica international with a wonderful cross to the back post from the right flank, Herron sidefooting home from close range to put the match away.
"It was an important game for us," Fire head coach Dave Sarachan said. "Those three points are huge. It wasn't a pretty game, but sometimes you've got to win games like that. You have to gut it out."
Sarachan made three changes to the team that lost 3-1 to D.C. United at RFK Stadium the previous Saturday. Evan Whitfield came in for Denny Clanton on the right of the back three, while Chris Armas made his first league start in five matches in the midfield. Andy Herron made his first MLS start, partnering Damani Ralph in attack as Nate Jaqua moved to a wide midfield role, the odd men out in the midfield Scott Buete and Logan Pause.
Here's Sarachan's team (3-4-1-2): Henry Ring - Evan Whitfield, Jim Curtin, C.J. Brown - Nate Jaqua, Chris Armas (Craig Capano 83), Jesse Marsch (Scott Buete 69), Kelly Gray - Andy Williams - Damani Ralph, Andy Herron (Dipsy Selolwane 86).
"Andy Herron's debut was a beauty,'' Sarachan said. "He's a real forward, good around the goal. He's a powerful guy with his back to the goal, and he's also good at going forward. From Day 1, he's been very comfortable here.''
Although Armas made an inspirational return, he will miss this weekend's match through caution point accumulation. "I'm still building back my fitness,'' Armas said, "but we felt this was our biggest game of the year, and we approached it that way. I wanted to play good, solid minutes and give the team a lift.''
Herron was named MLS Player of the Week for his performance, in balloting by the Professional Soccer Reporters Association.
It was also a seventh clean sheet for Henry Ring (tied for third in the league), and he received accolades despite Herron's two-goal performance. "Henry was in good spots to make important saves tonight," Sarachan said. "At the end of the night he held the team to zero goals."
Evan Whitfield hit the century mark for league appearances in his start against the Revolution, and assuming Jim Curtin will keep his ever-present streak going, he will also hit the 100 league appearance mark against the Crew.
The Chicago Fire went a long way in securing their playoff future, the defending Eastern Conference champion grabbing a massive three points in the foot-of-the-table clash against the New England Revolution at home on Saturday night. The Fire are now in fourth place in the East on 32 points from 27 matches, five ahead of the Revolution with three to play - and with an outside chance of claiming a playoff place with a victory (and other results) at the weekend.
The Columbus Crew have already clinched a place in the MLS Cup Playoffs, and with a victory against the Chicago Fire AND a MetroStars loss, 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 Columbus Crew AND a loss or a tie for the New England 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 Sept. 25, 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.