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The final two playoff berths still available in Major League Soccer this season have both come down to head-to-head matchups on the season's final day, and both involve last year's MLS Cup Finalists. The defending champion San Jose Earthquakes are fighting for their lives in Dallas, and in the East, the Chicago Fire head to Foxborough to face the New England Revolution knowing they need only a draw to secure fourth place and earn the right to defend their conference title - while also extending the club streak of never having missed the MLS Cup Playoffs.
REFEREE: Ricardo Valenzuela. SAR (bench): Gerg Barkey; JAR (opposite): Steven Taylor; 4th: Mark Geiger
MLS Career: 58 games; FC/gm: 34.8; Y/gm: 4.7; R: 24; pens: 17
Games involving Revolution: P10 W2 L8 T0; FC/gm: 38.7; Y/gm: 5.3; R: 5; pens: 2
Games involving Fire: P18 W11 L4 T3; FC/gm: 36.1; Y/gm: 4.9; R: 6; pens: 4
INJURY REPORT: NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION - OUT: GK Adin Brown (concussion); DF Carlos Llamosa (L knee sprain); FW Joe-Max Moore (R knee sprain); GK Kyle Singer (R shoulder sprain); DF Joe Franchino (R hip strain); DOUBTFUL: DF Steve Howey (R quad strain) ... CHICAGO FIRE - OUT: FW Ante Razov (R ankle bone spur); MD Logan Pause (R foot stress fracture); DOUBTFUL: MD Justin Mapp (R knee LCL sprain); QUESTIONABLE: MD Chris Armas (R knee surgery)
INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: none
The teams play for the fourth time in four meetings this season, the second of two at Gillette Stadium. Each team has won once with one draw this season, with a draw in their first Chicago encounter on July 11, the Revs then claiming a 3-1 come-from-behind victory in Foxborough three days later, before Chicago grabbed a 2-0 victory in Chicago three weeks ago.
New signing Andy Herron hit for two goals as Fire captain Chris Armas - in his first league action after returning from knee surgery - twice played provider.
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.
Here's Dave 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).
Here's Steve Nicol's team (4-1-3-2): Matt Reis - Steve Ralston, Jay Heaps, Rusty Pierce, Marshall Leonard - Shalrie Joseph - Richie Baker (Felix Brillant 66), Clint Dempsey, Brian Kamler - Pat Noonan, Taylor Twellman
Taylor Twellman ended the longest personal goalless drought of his career (702 minutes), but then was sent off at the end of the match in the Revolution's 3-1 on July 14 in Foxborough.
Andy Williams gave the Fire the lead just before the half with a wonderful strike from just inside the penalty area, but the Revolution took control with a three-goal blitz after the break. Clint Dempsey headed home a pinpoint cross from Richie Baker two minutes into the half to equalize, then four minutes later Twellman played a neat 1-2 with Dempsey before lashing home a cross shot from the right side of the area.
Then Twellman had the easiest of finishes on a corner after Brian Kamler's flick-on from the near post found the striker all alone at the back stick.
But he was sent off in the 90th minute by referee Alex Prus for a hard tackle from behind in midfield on Williams. The Fire were left a man down themselves barely a minute later when rookie Scott Buete was booked for the second time.
Three nights earlier at Soldier Field, the teams traded goals a minute apart early in the second half as they played to a 1-1 draw.
Damani Ralph blasted a penalty home off the hands of Rev 'keeper Matt Reis after Andy Williams was clipped in the area to give the Fire a 49th-minute lead, but then the visitors raced to the other end off the kickoff and won a free kick - from where Steve Ralston curled home a world-class effort from all of 30 yards that left Henry Ring helpless in the Chicago goal.
Last year, the Revolution were one of just two teams (D.C. United the other) to win the season series against the Fire, winning both games at home while getting a draw in the two games at Chicago.
While the road team failed to win last season, the year before, the home team failed to win - the Fire winning both games in New England and the Revs winning one at Chicago, with the second game there a draw.
Ante Razov leads the Fire's all-time records against the Revolution with 5 goals, 3 assists. Jesse Marsch is next among current Fire players with 0 goals, 7 assists - all but one with the Fire. Only two other current Fire player has more than one goal v New England, Andy Williams (3 goals, 3 assists), and Andy Herron.
Taylor Twellman leads the Revolution's all-time scoring table against Chicago with 7 goals, 1 assist - in just eight games played. Three of those goals came last season. Jay Heaps has 3 goals, 2 assists v the Fire (2 goals, 1 assist with New England), while Steve Ralston has 2 goal, 6 assists (2 goals, 2 assists with the Revs). No other current Revolution player has more than one goal v Chicago.
Coaches record: Dave Sarachan vs. NE: P7 W2 L3 T2 ... Steve Nicol v CHI: P9 W4 L3 T2
ALL-TIME (19 meetings): Revolution 7 wins (0 shootout), 30 goals ... Fire 7 wins (0 shootout), 28 goals ... 5 draws
AT NEW ENGLAND (9 meetings): Revolution 5 wins (0 shootout), 18 goals ... Fire 3 wins (0 shootout), 12 goals ... 1 draw
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
D.C. United once again gritted out an impressive result. Christian Gomez scored the game's only goal on 32 minutes, hitting home a flying side volley from Ben Olsen's looping cross into the penalty area.
United 'keeper Nick Rimando made a number of high-quality saves in the first half, then his side survived a tense final 16 minutes after Dema Kovalenko was sent off for a second bookable offense.
"We played typical of the way we played this year,'' said Revolution boss Steve Nicol. "We promised a lot. Basically, the whole season, when it's come down to a shot or a tackle, we did not produce. (United's) goal was nonsense. We just gave them a goal.''
Nicol made one change to the team that knocked off the Dallas Burn 2-0 the previous weekend, also bringing with it a fundamental tactical change, as Clint Dempsey returned from suspension in favor of Marshall Leonard, Nicol reverting to three in the back.
Here's Nicol's team (3-1-4-2): Matt Reis - Jay Heaps, Rusty Pierce, Avery John - Shalrie Joseph - Steve Ralston, Clint Dempsey, Jose Cancela (Felix Brillant 64), Brian Kamler (Andy Dorman 85) - Pat Noonan, Taylor Twellman
"Of course we're disappointed that we didn't win,'' Ralston said. "We were real sloppy in our passing and we couldn't find our forwards. When we did find them, the balls we gave them were sloppy, difficult for them to handle. We had a few good chances, but gave up a bad goal and that made the difference. If we score one of our chances early, it's a different game.''
After returning to his stock 4-4-2 formation for a month, Nicol returned to a 3-5-2 scheme for the United match, which he had used for much of the middle part of the season as his squad battled injuries.
"It has been like this all season, we win one, lose one," midfielder Shalrie Joseph said. "It comes down to one game and we are going to give 100 percent and fight for it. We have to ... not worry about how the rest of the season went. We have been struggling with injuries and with getting a formation together, but now we have one game at Gillette Stadium, we will have the fans behind us, and that's all you can ask for."
Jose Cancela started his second consecutive match after he was dropped from the first XI for four consecutive matches. He was taken off for Felix Brillant after 64 minutes. "We were looking to unsettle them," Nicol said. "We just wanted to make them shuffle and upset them, and we thought Felix could produce something with his pace."
The season will end for two Revolution stalwarts this week. Goalkeeper Adin Brown underwent release surgery on his left groin on Wednesday; already suffering lingering effects from concussion which kept him from playing, the surgery will keep him out for 6-8 weeks. Captain Joe Franchino will undergo two operations on Friday: arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, and a procedure to reattach his right hip muscle. Those will keep him off the field 4-6 weeks, but neither will be available for the postseason.
The New England Revolution left their postseason chances to the last weekend of the season, falling 1-0 to D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Saturday evening. The Revolution have lost four of their last six matches but are still in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 30 points from 29 matches, three behind the Chicago Fire, but they hold the tiebreakers in case of a tie for the final spot.
Edson Buddle's goal just before the hour, when he hammered home a free kick from just outside the penalty area, was the game's only marker, a beautiful first-time curling strike that bent away from Chicago 'keeper Henry Ring as it settled inside his left-hand post over his outstretched arms (59).
That result followed a wild 3-3 draw at Crew Stadium the previous weekend, when Andy Herron and Cunningham swapped two-goal games.
His squad racked by injury, suspension and international duty, Fire head coach Dave Sarachan made three changes to his team from the 3-3 draw. Leonard Griffin came into the back four and Orlando Perez came into the midfield.
Alexandre Boucicaut joined Kelly Gray as the strike partnership as Sarachan had no out-and-out strikers available, Andy Herron and Damani Ralph both with their national teams and Nate Jaqua suspended as the three not in the team.
Here's Sarachan's team (4-4-2): Henry Ring - Evan Whitfield, Jim Curtin, C.J. Brown, Leonard Griffin (Chris Carrieri 56) - Scott Buete, Craig Capano (Denny Clanton 89), Jesse Marsch, Orlando Perez (Sumed Ibrahim 76) - Alexandre Boucicaut, Kelly Gray
''Probably never [has a team been so short of regular players], but this wasn't about who wasn't here. It's about who is here. We had some opportunities that I felt we could have converted on, but we didn't," Sarachan said, "It took a career free kick. When the going's good, the going's good. In my opinion, we should have had a point or three."
The manpower crisis was such that Chris Carrieri and Sumed Ibrahim were signed by the Fire on a hardship basis. Carrieri, an MLS veteran who played with Rochester Raging Rhinos, came on early in the second half, while rookie Sumed was released after the signing of Zach Thornton and played the final quarter-hour. Neither will be in uniform for the season finale.
"It was as unique a situation as I've seen since I've been here," Curtin said. "I've never been so short-handed. There were a lot of new faces, and we weren't all on the same page."
The Fire have never missed the MLS Cup Playoffs in club history. They are one of only two teams to play in the postseason in every year of their existence - the Los Angeles Galaxy secured a ninth playoff berth in the nine-year history of the league a few weeks ago.
The home-and-home series against the Crew now could also be a preview of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, where a Fire victory will mean the two teams will battle.
"The goal now is to get that win (this) week and get in the playoffs," Fire midfielder Orlando Perez said. "If we play Columbus, Columbus has got another thing coming, because with our players, I don't think they can take us and I think they know that, too."
On Monday, the MetroStars defeated the Fire 2-0 in the National Soccer Hall of Fame Game at At-A-Glance Field in Oneonta, N.Y. Both of the goals came late in the first half, as Metros midfielder Pablo Brenes struck two minutes before the halftime whistle and forward Fabian Taylor pounded home a left-footed shot in stoppage time. Aside from the two goals, there were few good chances for either team, both of which trotted out lineups heavy with reserves.
The Chicago Fire return to league activity after a 10-day break, following a draw and a loss in a home-and-home series with the Columbus Crew, the latest result a 1-0 defeat at Soldier Field on Oct. 6. Despite the loss, the Fire are still in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 33 points from 29 matches, three ahead of the New England Revolution for the final playoff place in the East, though New England holds the tiebreakers.
It's all come down to one match for the defending Eastern Conference champion Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution. The Revolution must win at home to claim the final playoff spot still on offer in the Eastern Conference - a victory or a draw will suffice for the Fire.
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. 9, 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.