The Dallas Burn will begin their playoff quest on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl against the San Jose Earthquakes. You heard that right, the Dallas Burn are in the playoffs. Or at least they are in playoff mode according to every member of the team on Wednesday as they trained at the University of Texas at Dallas in preparation for their big match on Saturday. With a Dallas win over San Jose on Saturday, the Burn go to the playoffs and San Jose goes home. With a San Jose win or tie on Saturday, the Earthquakes go to the post-season and Dallas misses the playoffs. What an amazing opportunity for both squads as they virtually control their own destiny.
"We talked about the importance of this match on Saturday night after the Los Angeles match," said Burn forward Bobby Rhine. "We've been talking about there being a reason why we keep getting opportunities to get in the post-season. It's almost like we've had nine lives.
"Well this is the final opportunity given to us and it's a one-game season now."
The intensity at training on Wednesday was very high as the Burn players try to prepare themselves for this weekend's game. Having gone to the playoffs with Kansas City the past two seasons, defender Carey Talley knows how to get ready for a "playoff" match.
"Knowing that for 90 minutes you have to be concentrating at such a high level, you have to be mentally tuned in before it even starts," said Talley. "You have to be ready from the opening kickoff in case one of your teammates needs you to step up and make a big play.
"I'll get myself into the match by getting that first pass in and then I'll be fine."
This match is no small task for the Burn as they play host to the defending MLS Cup Champion San Jose Earthquakes. If both Dallas and New England win on Saturday, the two teams that went to the MLS Cup Finals last year will be the two teams watching the playoffs on television. It shows the great parity in Major League soccer and proves how quickly things can change for the good in this league. Last year, the Burn were eliminated from the playoff change nearly halfway through the season and this year they are in the hunt on the last day of the regular season.
"This season, our team chemistry has been so much better and you can tell both on and off the field," said Burn midfielder Ronnie O'Brien. "With a new coach coming and a few player moves we made earlier, the team chemistry is really starting to come together.
"That's why Saturday is such a huge match for us."
This week for the Burn will be a combination of working on ways to counter what San Jose does well, reinforcing the strengths of what they do well and realizing what this match means to this team. Burn Head Coach Colin Clarke would like nothing more than to get his team ready for the last regular season match at the Cotton Bowl and the first match of the 2004 playoffs.
"To prepare this team, we'll focus on a few things that we did not do well in the last few games and look at the strengths of the San Jose team we're playing," said Clarke. "Our players know what's at stake for this match, but we'll do everything in our power to get them in the right frame of mind before kickoff on Saturday."
One shot in the arm the Burn will receive on Saturday will be the return of three players from National Team duties. Eddie Johnson (U.S. team), Cory Gibbs (U.S. team) and Chris Gbandi (Liberia team) will all be at the match on Saturday. Gibbs (yellow cards) and Gbandi were at training on Wednesday with the team, while Johnson will join the squad following the U.S. match with Panama in Washington D.C. Wednesday night.
"Without a doubt, these three guys will be a tremendous boost to our team," said Clarke. "Cory has been a good player for us all year and we have really missed him when he has been gone. The same with Eddie and we're glad to have Chris back too.
"We pretty much get everybody back healthy and ready to go."
With this "must-win" match comes a selfless desire to do whatever you can to help your team get to the playoffs. All individual goals and awards are put on the back-burner as the team bands together for one more push to the post-season. This is the last regular season match in Dallas Burn history as the team changes their name and moves up to a new facility as FC Dallas in Frisco next season. It should be one heck of a match.
Ronnie O'Brien, who will be considered for MLS Comeback Player of the Year, knows that nothing matters unless the team wins this weekend.
"The individual year doesn't mean a thing to me unless we win on Saturday," O'Brien said. "It comes down to being a team game and if we don't win, we're done. Believe me, we know that."
Dallas Burn forward Eddie Johnson was inserted into the match during his first U.S. National Team appearance last Saturday night at El Salvador during the 71st minute of the World Cup qualifier for the U.S. In the 75th minute, Johnson found the back of the net and became just the seventh player since 1986 to score a goal in his first-ever national team appearance. He also is now one of 38 players to accomplish the feat and is the first player in 29 years (Boris Bandov in 1976) to do it in a World Cup qualifying match. Dallas Burn defender Cory Gibbs was also in the lineup for the U.S. and was thrilled to just don the U.S. kit.
"It's such a great experience for Eddie and I to put on the patch and represent the United States," said Gibbs. "It's my dream to be doing this."
Gibbs also said he couldn't be happier when his friend and teammate buried one to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead.
"I felt so happy for Eddie," said Gibbs. "That's the first of many goals Eddie is going to score for both the U.S. National Team and for the Dallas Burn."