Fire follow game plan into conference final

Prior to Saturday's Eastern Conference Semifinal Series second leg against the New England Revolution, the Chicago Fire had a game plan -- to stay focused and composed. They did just that, added some fresh legs and earned a 2-0 win.

The Fire were down 2-1 on aggregate after last weekend's first leg loss in New England. The 2-0 win, capped by Cuauhtemoc Blanco's goal six minutes from the end, gave the Fire the 3-2 aggregate win and sent them into the Eastern Conference Championship.

"We were smart," Fire defender C.J. Brown said. "We didn't race out and force the goal. We knew we'd get our chances. Everybody defended. We settled the game down and got in the attacking third. We stuck to our game plan and got a result."

Chicago dominated offensively on the night, taking 21 shots (13 on goal) to New England's 12 (four on goal). Once Chicago got into a rhythm, they limited the Revolution's chances. Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis had his hands full with 10 saves on the night.

"Our guys were so focused," Fire head coach Denis Hamlett said. "It was a special night. We had a full house. Our guys knew what was at stake. Everyone had a great game. Tonight, we took care of business."

Chicago took a 1-0 lead into the half, after John Thorrington netted his first goal of the season, in the 35th minute. Yet when Brian McBride hit the ground in the 52nd minute, it looked as if they were in trouble.

But Patrick Nyarko entered the match in the 56th minute for the veteran and brought a whole new energy. That energy resulted in the series-winning goal, when Nyarko fed Blanco after winning the ball in the corner and the Mexican international lifted the ball into the net.

"It was a great performance by everybody tonight," McBride said. "It showed that when we stick together, we get a big result."

It wasn't an easy win for the Fire. At times, the physical match became a bit much. Two players left the field with injuries -- McBride with a stiff knee and New England's Mauricio Castro with a bloody cut on his arm. The Fire stayed composed, fouling the Revolution just eight times, compared to 16 for New England. The Revolution were also booked three times by referee Alex Prus.

After going ahead of the series, New England had a few close calls as they tried to save their season. Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch made two saves, while a header from Pat Phelan went just wide right in the 90th minute.

"We made some big plays at the end," Hamlett said. "It was a really good effort by everyone."

For the third consecutive year and fourth time in the last five years, the Fire earned a trip to the Eastern Conference Championship. Only this time, they'll host it, after playing on the road in each of the last three (and losing each one). The Fire will welcome Real Salt Lake to Toyota Park on Saturday, Nov. 14.

"Our goal tonight was to make sure we get a win and earn another game," Thorrington said. "We did that. Real Salt Lake is a tough team. We're focused on them now."

Kathryn L. Knapp is a contributor to

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