Are Fire destined for MLS Cup title?

By Greg Lalas ,

I can now add a new one to the list: When Charlie the Tequila Man says something, listen. I met Charlie while waiting for the traffic to clear at Toyota Park on Saturday night. The Chicago Fire had just earned a 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution, taking the series 3-2 on aggregate, in yet another installment of MLS' toughest rivalry (RECAP).

Charlie and his compañeros were polishing off their final beers -- and last few sips of tequila -- and discussing the Fire.

"Good," Charlie said, making it sound more like guut. "Chicago is good. They will win."

Everything? I asked.

"Si, señor." Charlie smiled, revealing a set of teeth only a wife could tolerate. "Champions."

Charlie grew up in Sinaloa, Mexico, and came to Chicago 25 years ago. He and his buddies turn out for most Fire games -- the half-empty midsummer slogs and the raucous, flaming-red playoff games like this one -- and most admitted there was only one reason they had even considered becoming Fire fans: Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

The "guy who looks like an accountant," as an old girlfriend described Blanco, was en fuego on Saturday. (Aside: What's the over-under on fiery puns in a Fire-focused article? Infernal Combustion ... Flame and Fortune ...?) The Mexican national-teamer's series-clinching goal, flamboyant Bugs Bunny-esque conducting and crowd-incitin' referee-unnervin' radio-broadcaster-infuriatin' theatrics gave Fire fans from Winnetka to Juárez the ultimate belief: The Fire, despite the injuries, controversies and departures, are on the path to a second MLS Cup trophy.

And I have to say, I can't argue with that. With apologies to the Landon-heads out in L.A., the Ching-alicious luau down in Houston and the upset-special forces out in Salt Lake City, I think anyone who watched the first round of the MLS playoffs has to say Chicago is now the favorite to pop the bubbly in Seattle.

It isn't just Blanco who gives the Fire their current sizzle. (See, another one.) It's John Thorrington, the tireless central midfielder who returned from injury, scored the first goal and neutralized New England's magnificent Shalrie Joseph. It's Brian McBride, who does so many things beyond scoring goals, from providing a nearly faultless outlet up top to defending every set piece.

It's Chris Rolfe and his ever-present threat, Patrick Nyarko and his powerful pace, C.J. Brown and his ageless passion. And imagine if Gonzalo Segares and Wilman Conde get healthy in time for next week's game. Uffa, as they say in Italy.

But maybe Chicago's sudden rise to the top after slouching into the playoffs comes from its being forced to overcome many obstacles down the stretch. Out of chaos comes order, if you will.

A few weeks before the end of the regular season, I spoke with McBride, and he seemed to feel that the troubles -- the locker-room donnybrook between former Fire center back Bakary Soumare and coach Denis Hamlett that hastened the former's departure to France; the injuries to McBride, Conde, Segares, etc.; Rolfe's midseason announcement that he had signed in Denmark; the rumors that Hamlett, who seemed constantly at loggerheads with Blanco, was to get the axe if the Fire failed to reach the final -- all of it, McBride said, was pretty normal. Nothing to worry about. In fact, it might have united the team.

The MLS power brokers and the suits at the Worldwide Leader, of course, would love -- LOVE! -- to see Blanco & Co. in the final. Even better, they'd love to see a Chicago-L.A. final, so it could be billed as Beckham vs. Blanco, Donovan vs. McBride. The two best Designated Players and the two best scorers in U.S. national-team history go head to head. It's a marquee marketer's wet dream.

Of course, there's every possibility that it won't happen. After all, predicting anything in MLS is on par with predicting what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to say next: Do it with any authority, and you're liable to get burned. (Another one!)

But based on the way things are going for Chicago right now, I'd be willing to throw some dinero down. Besides, Charlie the Tequila Man said it would happen.

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