if not four -- teams too many. Ultimately, it is what it is, and one byproduct of the system is a large dose of ignominy to the clubs that don't make the cut. The New England Revolution have only made that cut four times in the team's nine years. If Steve Nicol's side can't pull out a win at Gillette Stadium, it will simply be, to be brutally honest, a continuation of the frustration that has plagued them since the team's inception. Or the curse of the Bambino. One or the other.
The Fire's situation is much different. Since the team's formation, it has never had to cope with missing the playoffs. Ever. Not getting a result this weekend is almost unfathomable to many fans. This is not a tradition we'd like to see broken, and that puts this match, in my mind, ahead of the three MLS Cup Finals and four U.S. Open Cup Finals that mark the franchise's brief but storied history. While the situation mirrors 2002 -- fighting for a playoff spot in the final game of the season -- we know that team successfully handled the pressure and made the playoffs.
So the big question is, does the 2004 squad assembled by head coach Dave Sarachan have the resilience to come through in the clutch, to win -- or rather, to not lose -- when their backs are up against the wall?
This is exactly where I get hung up. With a gritty, 10-man effort to salvage a point in Columbus a few weeks ago, I thought maybe the spark was there, that the confidence was there. Of course, it could just be that Andy Herron was there, but at the same time, he'll be in New England on Saturday, too. You don't want to read too much into the subsequent home loss against that same Columbus team, considering the lineup that was on the field. The Fire probably get a result and a playoff berth from that match if just one of the many missing players is on the field. Yet there was a certain pall at the end of that game that clouded the immediate future with uncertainty, coming from the notion that it just might have been the last time the team graces Soldier Field this season.
Chicago should, by all accounts, be able to beat New England in Foxborough, Mass., especially now that the team is mostly healthy and back from the four corners of the globe (not to be confused with the six corners of the intersection closest to The Globe Pub, which is where I'll be watching the match). Except that points have been hard to come by for the Fire at the Big Razor lately -- the last three matches have all been losses. This isn't going to be easy, nor should it be.
Which brings us to the game itself. The only thing I feel confident in predicting is that, given the obvious intensity of this match, someone who went to Duke University will probably get at least a yellow card. After that, I would start with watching the likely matchup of Kelly Gray and the Revolution's Steve Ralston. Ralston has been forced to play a more defensive role lately, but with the Revs needing to win, he's going to have to push forward. The Fire's utility man has to rise to the opportunity to both contain him and get behind him.
The next guy to keep an eye on is Jesse Marsch. By my reckoning, the New England defense has a tendency to just clear the ball out of their penalty area when under pressure, rather than possess the ball through the midfield, and this means it will be incumbent upon Marsch, as well as Fire captain Chris Armas and Jamaican international Andy Williams, to win those fifty-fifty balls in the center of the field and get right back into the attack.
Finally, the Fire's backline is going to have to stay focused and solid for the entire 90 minutes. One of the strengths of guys like Taylor Twellman and Clint Dempsey is that they flail around aggressively in the penalty area and create goals and goal-scoring opportunities from the resulting chaos, particularly when the ball squirts loose in and around the goal mouth. Unfortunately, dealing with broken plays like this is an area where the Fire has been vulnerable all season. I have a hunch that the defense will be able to cope better with this sort of situation by virtue of having three veterans in the back who have played together quite a lot in C.J. Brown, Jim Curtin and Evan Whitfield, along with the familiar faces of Armas and Marsch in front of them. Knowing instinctively how your teammates will respond in some of the less predictable moments is one of those critical intangibles for any player, and that only improves with experience. This is a topic I'll certainly be coming back to after the season is over.
Hopefully, that won't be this weekend. As a fan, I'm conditioned to think the Fire can and will win, and that thought process is certainly still there. However, there's also this specter of doubt that, I have to be honest, I don't like hanging over my shoulder. My profound hope is that the players and coaches don't like it, either, and they'll do everything possible to get rid of that uncertainty in time to make a serious run at another trophy.
Chris Costello is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com.