C.J. Brown

Friendly confines await Fire in semis

formerly known as Cardinal Stadium -- was the Fire's home for nearly two seasons while Soldier Field was being renovated.

While the stadium got poor reviews for its FieldTurf playing surface and its distance from downtown Chicago, the club got excellent results there, certainly helped by tremendous crowd support in the comfy confines in going 15-6-8 there in MLS and Open Cup competition from 2002-2003.

"[The FieldTurf] is really not something you choose to play on. It's not a surface that is ideal to play a semifinal game on, but we'll get used to it again," Fire defender C.J. Brown said during a press conference Tuesday. "Really, it's the same that we were used to."

The Fire may be used to the field and the Open Cup semis, but the last-place Fire are not accustomed to their current position in the MLS table. For Brown and his teammates, success in the Open Cup is somewhat of a respite from league play and may well serve as a springboard as the MLS regular season winds down.

"It is refreshing because you're close to a championship," Brown said. "You can take whatever you want out of the regular season so far, but the players really are excited to be a part of this. We are the defending champions and we take that very seriously."

Fire assistant coach Daryl Shore tried to downplay the perception that teams take different mindsets toward MLS and Open Cup competition. He also said the club's hopes for another domestic double are still alive.

"We set out to win two championships, two cups, at the beginning of each season," he said. "It is tough to switch gears, but we feel that we're still in both cup competitions. We are still not out of the MLS Cup; we're only nine points behind first place in the Eastern Conference and three points behind [D.C. United]. We've been playing better and have eight games left, so we feel that our league season is still just beginning."

The Fire's opponents from the second division have had similar difficulties in league play. The Battery are currently eighth out of nine teams in the A-League's Eastern Conference. Still, they defeated the MetroStars in the fourth round of the competition before dumping out fellow A-League side Rochester in the quarterfinals and have yet to allow a goal in Open Cup play in 2004. Shore said the Fire are by no means a lock to qualify for another Open Cup final.

"[The Battery are] a veteran team, a big, physical team. Since their season hasn't gone well, this is like their final," Shore said. "This is their Super Bowl and they're coming into this to win it, and we have to be prepared or else we'll be watching the final from home."

Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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