The merits of Major League Soccer's playoff system have been debated ever since the league went to a two-game, aggregate goal plan for the first round years ago.
Do the Chicago Fire really have a home-field advantage when the first game, the tone-setter for the series, is played away from home? Who knows?
What is known is the Fire have a few advantages heading into Sunday's first leg at Gillette Stadium against the New England Revolution, whom the Fire have played in the playoffs each of the last five seasons and seven times in the last eight years.
For instance, the Fire have played two consecutive games with playoff implications (at New England, home vs. Chivas USA) and not given up a goal. The Fire have always had a defensive mindset, and they got back to playing consistent defensive soccer despite having many starters out on the back line.
Add to those results the fact that Gonzalo Segares is definitely returning for the game to play left back, and the Fire defensive unit could be stronger still against a New England team that has had definite problems scoring.
Center back Wilman Conde could remain out with hamstring and headache issues.
A second advantage the Fire have is that their two most famous members, Designated Players Brian McBride and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, could be playing their last games with the Fire. Blanco has already announced his plans to return to Mexico on loan following the completion of the season while McBride is out of contract.
Blanco has had his own hamstring issues to deal with but is reportedly in full health with more than a week of training behind him.
Fire coach Denis Hamlett said the team is well prepared and fully focused on the two-game Eastern Conference Semifinal Series.
"We are one of eight teams still standing, and it is very difficult to make the playoffs in this league because of the parity," Hamlett said. "We have been consistently in second place in our conference, and we know that all the work has prepared us for these playoffs. Our guys are excited. They are four games away from lifting the Cup, and it starts with this game in New England."
Again, it's the Revolution standing in the way. Fire defender C.J. Brown has seen all of the permutations of the league's best, most consistent rivalry.
"Overall, New England has had the better of the matches," Brown said. "During the season, I think we have been the better team but in the playoffs they have had the more success. But we turned it around last year."
The Fire beat the Revs in the two-game series last season to advance to the conference final against Columbus, where they lost 2-1.
"It is always a fierce battle," midfielder Logan Pause said. "We have a rich history with them, and usually the games have meant the winner is going to go on to the final or conference final. Both teams are extremely competitive and want to win. They enjoy and hate playing each other."
The MLS Cup Playoffs call for a two-game aggregate goal first-round series, so it's actually like a 180-minute game with a halftime that lasts a full week. But this series holds the distinction of playing on two totally different fields in the two games.
The field at Gillette Stadium is now artificial turf, while the field at Toyota Park is natural grass. Gillette is also 15 yards shorter than Toyota.
"You prepare for the opponent but you understand the field dimensions you are going to play," Hamlett said. "You prepare yourself mentally for the first game because you know you are playing on turf. The dimensions make things very tight. You have to be alert because things happen fast."
The second game will be played Saturday, Nov. 7, at Toyota Park.
Kent McDill is a contributor to MLSnet.com.