In the line of Fire

When the Chicago Fire travel to Foxboro, Mass., to face the New England Revolution this Saturday at Gillette Stadium, there will be only one thing to think about: playoff survival. The last match of the 2004 MLS regular season is a "do-or-die " match for the defending Eastern Conference champions, as the team is currently residing in fourth place, a scant three points ahead of its weekend opponent. A win or a draw against the Revolution ensures a playoff berth - and it would mark the seventh consecutive time the Fire accomplish the feat since the club's inception in 1998.

The Revolution have been an arduous opponent for the Fire when MLS Cup Championship hopes are on the line. In 2000, the Fire lost the regular season series 0-1-1, then the "Men in Red" went on to crush the Revs 6-0 in the quarterfinals of the 2000 MLS Cup Playoffs after splitting the first two games. Fast forward. In 2002, after winning the regular season series 2-1-1, the Fire fell 2-0 in Game 1 of the first-to-five points quarterfinals series against the Revs. Then in Game 2, Ante Razov kept hopes alive for the Fire faithful by scoring two goals in Chicago's 2-1 win at Soldier Field. However, the Fire eventually fell to New England 2-0 in Game 3 at Gillette Stadium.

> The Fire have a 1-1-1 record against the Revolution in 2004 and are 7-7-5 all-time. However, the Fire haven't won a game in Foxboro since Aug. 18, 2002. If the Fire should lose the match, the Revolution would win the head-to-head competition 2-1-1 and face the Columbus Crew in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals beginning next week.

"This is obviously a big game for us," said Fire head coach Dave Sarachan. ">We have a group of guys that are big game players and they're excited about this big game. Our preparation this week has been very good. We feel confident that we can win this game."

Last season, when the Fire captured their first MLS Supporters Shield after garnering league's best overall record and were crowed the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Champion for the third time in team history, there was only one more piece of hardware to take: the MLS Cup. So when the Fire crushed D.C. United 4-0 in aggregate goals in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, the Fire would meet an all too familiar face in the Eastern Conference Championship: New England.

On November 14, 2003, a cool breeze from Lake Michigan drifted into the stadium throughout the tense match, further clenching muscles and highlighting the anxiety of all 14,610 fans at Soldier Field. The Fire played a tough - and scoreless - match against the Revolution, until Chris Armas' 101st minute tally earned the Fire its third MLS Cup Final in six years. The Fire would eventually fall to San Jose 4-2 in the title match to take runners-up honors for the second time in team history.

While the Fire accomplished a magnificent feat this year by reaching their seventh championship final in seven years, the team was far from garnering the best overall record and fell 1-0 to the Kansas City Wizards in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup title match in September.

To say the Fire have had their worst season ever would be an understatement. The loss of Zach Thornton and Carlos Bocanegra before the season even began seemed like a blow. Then Razov - the Fire's all-time scoring leader - fell to injury midway through the season. And when U.S. international DaMarcus Beasley accepted an offer from PSV Eindhoven in Holland, things couldn't seem to get worse. But they did.

In the middle of his hot, three-game scoring streak, teenage sensation Justin Mapp went down with a right knee sprain and defender Logan Pause followed with a stress fracture. Chris Armas' right knee inflammation has kept the captain out of the lineup more than once, and his status is questionable for this weekend. And let's not forget that the 20 player games the Fire have lost due to the national team call-ups of U.S. internationals Armas and Beasley, Jamaicans Damani Ralph and Andy Williams, Botswana's Dipsy Selolwane, and most recently, Andy Herron to Costa Rica. In all, the Fire have lost 93 players games to injuries (63), national team call-ups (20) and suspensions (10).

Sarachan will have Ralph, Williams, Herron and Selolwane back for the game on Saturday. The international quartet joined their respective national team squads for World Cup qualifying on Oct. 3 and missed the Fire's match against the Crew on Oct. 6.

"It's great to have them back," added Sarachan. "We'll have to see where those guys are physically and mentally. They've done a lot of traveling and that can take a toll. If they're healthy, they'll definitely help our team because they're experienced players."

Though the Fire have run into difficult times, there are some new faces that look poised to help the squad clinch its seventh consecutive playoff berth. Herron, who will have played in two games in less than a week for Costa Rica before Saturday's game, is one of the new arrivals with a proven dangerous presence on the field. His four goals in two games (Sept. 25 vs. New England and Oct. 2 at Columbus) earned him back-to-back Player of the Week accolades.

Herron's effort on Oct. 2 against the Crew was an impressive display, with his first goal in the 59th minute earning him Sierra Mist Goal of the Week honors and his second of the evening in the 80th minute drawing the Fire even to earn the club an important point via a 3-3 draw.

"We've been hit pretty hard this season, with injuries and call-ups and such, so we'll be looking forward to getting those guys back," said defender C.J. Brown, one of the five remaining members of the original squad. "In many ways, this is the most important game for us, ever. We've always made the playoffs and now it's down to this last game. It's never easy playing in Foxboro, but our mentality has been very good. We won't be playing defensively. We're going to take the game to them."

While the MetroStars and D.C. United will fight to see who earns the second and third seeds in the East, the team that emerges from Gillette Stadium on Saturday will host the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Semifinals next weekend. The Fire or Revolution will play the return leg of the semifinal series at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 31 at 4 p.m. CT.

Geoff Przekop is a contributor to

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