Fire, D.C. United leave it all to play for

CHICAGO - The Chicago Fire and D.C. United combined for 21 goals in four evenly played regular-season matches, but neither team found their mark in the first leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series on Friday night at Soldier Field.

The 0-0 result leaves everything to play for in the return match of the series on Sun., Oct. 30 at RFK Stadium.

Despite the high stakes, the match started at a frantic pace. Fire 'keeper Zach Thornton showed the first bit of nerves in the fifth minute by misplaying a low corner kick from Christian Gomez. Josh Gros headed the bouncing ball wide of goal from in close and United looked to be having a good start.

But neither team could gain a first half foothold. The opening stanza developed into an affair with niggling battles, which were too hot for the flair players to make a difference.

Despite only a few first half offensive chances for either team, the Fire nearly went into the interval with a lead.

Into first half injury time, United 'keeper Nick Rimando ventured far off his line to catch a flighted cross, but failed to make contact with the ball. With Rimando well outside the goal area, the ball bounded to Jesse Marsch, who rushed a left-footed volley towards goal. But United defender Brian Carroll cleared Marsch's weak kick off the goal line.

Then just before the final whistle of the half, Fire midfielder Justin Mapp sprinted on a 30-yard near-breakaway. United defender John Wilson took a measured run and met Mapp with a hard tackle just inside the penalty area before Mapp could shoot.

The second half was played similarly to the first, with little space for either team to create any real attacking danger. United thought they had a penalty kick midway through the half when Jim Curtin knocked the ball away from Jaime Moreno then took down the United striker, but referee Brian Hall ruled for a corner.

Yet the Fire showed more energy after coach Dave Sarachan inserted forwards Nate Jaqua and Chad Barrett for the final quarter-hour. The Fire forced several corner kicks late in the match, and seemingly scored the go-ahead goal off a corner in the 90th minute.

Barrett headed a Fire corner past Rimando and into the United goal, but Hall whistled an infraction in the goalmouth.

Freddy Adu did not dress for United. The 16-year-old striker served a one-game suspension for "conduct detrimental to the team."

Some veteran Fire players left the pitch slowly after Hall blew the final whistle. The match could have marked the Fire's last ever match at Soldier Field, as the team prepares to call Bridgeview their home next season.

The Fire are United's bogey team in the MLS Cup Playoffs, being the only team to knock the Black-and-Red out of the postseason in D.C.'s six appearances. The Fire had won all three previous playoff matches between the squads 2-0, including MLS Cup '98. Man of the Match: Brian Carroll (D.C. United)

Ivaldo Basso is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.