Needing a victory to clinch a third consecutive playoff berth with a late rush, the New England Revolution won their way into the MLS Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Fire on Saturday evening at Gillette Stadium, eliminating last year's MLS Cup Finalist and Eastern Conference champion from the postseason.
Needing three points to vault into fourth place ahead of the Fire, the Revs found a way to scrape into the postseason at the last gasp, as goals from Clint Dempsey in the 55th minute and Steve Ralston in the 58th minute either side of a 56th-minute header from Nate Jaqua sent the Revolution into the playoffs.
With everything on the line, both sides came roaring out of the gate, full of endeavor to find an early goal. Chicago nearly drew first blood, as Andy Williams went close seven minutes into the contest after delicate interplay between Williams and Andy Herron carved a glimpse of goal for the Jamaican international 20 yards from goal. But his volley went just wide.
After the Fire owned play at the start of the match, the home side grew in strength in the latter half of the first half, as they established possession through midfield.
First, Leonard tried to make amends, but his 26th minute shot hand post skipped just wide of the right hand post. Clint Dempsey then forced a smart save from Chicago 'keeper Henry Ring on 41 minutes, the rookie shooting through traffic only for Ring to dive well to his right to keep out his effort.
Dempsey then crossed for Noonan as the half came to a close, but Noonan's weak header was easily collected by Ring.
The home side erupted out of the locker room pouring forward into the Fire half. The Fire had to dig the ball out of their net on 51 minutes, but Steve Ralston's goal, slotted through the legs of Ring, was ruled out for offside.
Then the match erupted to life in the 56th minute, as the teams hit for three goals in four minutes.
Dempsey opened the scoring thanks to a fortuitous bounce. Cancela's corner was met in midair by Jay Heaps and Evan Whitfield, and the bounce fell to the unmarked Dempsey, who slammed home from six yards to vault the home side into a momentary lead.
But the Fire replied a minute afterwards thanks to Jaqua's fourth goal of the campaign. A Williams corner found Jaqua, who leaped over the Revolution defense to place a clear header past the outstretched leg of Pat Noonan on the goal line to level the proceedings.
Ralston, denied by the flag seven minutes prior, tallied the eventual match-winner in the 58th minute. Cancela lofted a well-weighted ball over the top of the Fire defense, and Ralston met it in mid-air with the inside of his right boot, tucking it past Ring at the far post.
Ralston nearly extended the advantage after a surging run in the 68th minute, but his shot was deflected by Kelly Gray.
Desperately chasing an equalizing goal that still would have put them in the postseason, the Fire struggled to generate any quality scoring chances in response to the Revolution. Williams nearly got free behind the Revolution defense, but the ball just slipped away on the wet turf as rain over the second half.
Williams departed in the 80th minute, but Chicago still managed a couple of late chances. Damani Ralph first rolled his left-footed shot right into Reis's arms after 82 minutes when he wriggled free at the top of the area, then in almost the last kick of the match, the Fire won a free kick right on the penalty area line, but Ralph blasted the effort well high and wide and with it went the Fire's postseason hopes.
The Revolution play host to the Columbus Crew in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sat., Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.
MLSnet.com Man of the Match: Clint Dempsey (New England Revolution)
Chicago Fire (8-13-9) vs. New England Revolution (8-13-9)
October 16, 2004 -- Gillette Stadium
NE -- Clint Dempsey 7 (Jay Heaps 2, Jose Cancela 9) 55
CHI -- Nate Jaqua 4 (Andy Williams 9) 56
NE -- Steve Ralston 7 (Jose Cancela 10, Shalrie Joseph 3) 58
Chicago Fire -- Henry Ring, Kelly Gray, Jim Curtin, Evan Whitfield (Dipsy Selolwane 85), C.J. Brown, Scott Buete (Chris Armas 46), Jesse Marsch, Andy Williams (Craig Capano 79), Nate Jaqua, Andy Herron, Damani Ralph.
Substitutes Not Used: Orlando Perez, Zach Thornton.
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (3 tied with 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Nate Jaqua 2); FOULS: 12 (Jesse Marsch 4); OFFSIDES: 5 (Damani Ralph 2); CORNER KICKS: 6 (Andy Williams 3); SAVES: 4 (Henry Ring 4)
New England Revolution -- Matt Reis, Jay Heaps, Marshall Leonard, Rusty Pierce, Steve Ralston, Clint Dempsey, Jose Cancela (Andy Dorman 79), Shalrie Joseph, Avery John, Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan.
Substitutes Not Used: Richie Baker, Perek Belleh, Felix Brillant, Bobby Thompson, Luke Vercollone, Doug Warren.
TOTAL SHOTS: 14 (3 tied with 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 6 (Clint Dempsey 3); FOULS: 12 (Clint Dempsey 4); OFFSIDES: 2 (Pat Noonan 1, Steve Ralston 1); CORNER KICKS: 6 (Jose Cancela 6); SAVES: 2 (Matt Reis 2)
NE -- Taylor Twellman (caution; Reckless Foul) 22
NE -- Clint Dempsey (caution; Tackle from Behind) 46+
CHI -- C.J. Brown (caution; Professional Foul) 57
NE -- Rusty Pierce (caution; Dissent) 61
CHI -- Jesse Marsch (caution; Dissent) 69
Referee: Ricardo Valenzuela
Referee's Assistants: Greg Barkey; Steven Taylor
4th Official: Mark Geiger
Time of Game: 1:51
All Statistics contained in this boxscore are unofficial