Once the shock wears off, pure elation will set in.
The Chicago Fire surprised everyone -- including themselves -- as they ripped through the hostile house of defending MLS Cup champs D.C. United on Sunday in the second leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series. The visitors dominated every facet and phase of the game at RFK Stadium, getting four goals from its midfield en route to a decisive 4-0 victory and a place in the Eastern Conference Championship against New England.
"Obviously [United] is a very good team," Fire coach Dave Sarachan said, with a smile he couldn't suppress. "Teams come in here with a little bit of fear, but this group did not fear coming here. We've had pretty good success here this year and in the past, so we just came in and it was a pretty comprehensive result."
So comprehensive in fact, the mood in the Fire locker room was one of near-disbelief.
"We're a little bit shocked," said Jesse Marsch, who scored the fourth goal on a spectacular full volley. "I think we knew we could give [United] a good game, and our goal was to make it hard on them. I never would have thought the result would have ended up like this. D.C. is a great team, and I had a lot of respect for them all year long."
But this afternoon, it was the 20,000 sullen fans in the nation's capital who left with a deep respect for the Fire, who marched in unison to victory in what was an entirely one-sided affair.
"We had confidence that we could beat them," said Fire rookie Chris Rolfe. "We put it out there and we just outplayed them. We outworked them."
Chicago netted three first-half goals -- two by Honduran international Ivan Guerrero -- before Marsch finished the scoring midway through the second half.
"What it comes down to," said Rolfe, "is every guy on the field working so hard for each other. There wasn't one guy out there who wasn't working. And when you do that, you play well as a team, you feel good as a team, and.when that happens, good things happen for the team."
Rolfe and fellow striker Nate Jaqua were certainly catalysts for making good things happen. Both young guns worked tirelessly up top for the Fire, and were critical to setting a tone of intensity all over the field.
"I thought Nate [Jaqua] and Rolfe were tremendous," Sarachan said. "Nate was a handful for [United] and Rolfe scooped up a lot of stuff, and I thought Ivan Guerrero was clearly buzzing tonight. We found enough space [up top] to be dangerous."
"One of the things we wanted to do to try and make ourselves more dangerous," added Marsch, "was to pressure their backs a little bit, and make it hard from the front line all the way back. I think we managed to do a really good job of that, and you have to credit Nate Jaqua and Chris Rolfe. Those guys put in a sound, sound effort up there."
Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn't entirely the Fire's potent offense that moved them to the next round of the playoffs -- it was their oft-inconsistent defense, which conceded no goals to United in the two-game series. Chicago came in sporting the dubious distinction of the 10th-best defense in the league, the worst of any of the playoff teams.
"Anytime you play a playoff game on the road," said Marsch, "defense has to be your priority. It was tonight, and it led to offense.The key is whether it's 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 or whatever, to defend well and then see if you can put in another goal, because that really puts the dagger in them. We managed to do that."
When asked about his roller-coaster defense this year, Sarachan -- who now sports a 4-1-1 career playoff record -- was, well, a little defensive.
"Our defense was tremendous. It hasn't been up and down in the last month," he said. "We've been very good defensively, not just our back line, but the whole group. If you're going to win a championship, you've got to defend. And we had two shutouts in a row in the playoffs, so we're headed in the right direction."
Rolfe was also highly complimentary of the defensive effort.
"The last two games have been amazing," he said. "C.J. [Brown] and Gonzalo [Segares] are playing unbelievable in the back, and Jimmy [Curtin] is holding it down. It starts up top with myself and Nate. We're trying to do the little things, the dirty work, to get it started, and from there on out, we're double-teaming, and we're tight on guys."
The Fire will face the Revolution in New England in one week. Chicago midfield stalwart Chris Armas, out with a left knee ACL tear, will go under the knife Wednesday, and will be sidelined for an estimated three months.
Despite being without Armas' services, Chicago is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming battle next Sunday at Gillette Stadium, a one-game, winner-take-all contest.
"[The Revs will be] another tough, tough match for us," Marsch said. "Everything that it took tonight, it's going to take twice that [next week]. We've struggled in New England so badly for the past three years. I have a lot of respect for those guys. It's always tough to win there. They have solid, solid players and they're well-coached. We have a quick turnaround here; we're going to gather ourselves, get healthy, come up with another good game plan, and make it hard on them."
Sarachan, for his part, was more confident of his squad's prospects, weather-permitting.
"I'll tell you this," he said, "we came to RFK and won. We can go anywhere and win. We're going to be excited about the championship in the East, going to New England. Let's hope they don't have snow."
Omar Garriott is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.