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Hot time in Chicago


All of a sudden, the Chicago Fire are the league's hottest team (no pun intended) and everyone's favorite underdog. They snuck into the playoffs on the last day, and then beat D.C. United 1-0 in the first leg of their MLS Cup playoff series last Thursday. Now every pundit with a laptop or a Sunday afternoon TV show on Fox Soccer Channel is picking the Fire to reach the MLS Cup final.

However, they first have to get by United in the second leg this Thursday. That's no easy feat. They go to RFK, face the screaming, ravenous Barra Brava (Do people coincidentally "forget" to feed those folks on game days?) and must try to eke out a victory over MLS' best team in the regular season.

Not that I'm saying they can't do it. Quite the opposite. After all, Chicago is undefeated in its last nine league games. I'm an unabashed bandwagoneer, delirious myself with Blanco Fever. It's impossible to resist. Cuauhtémoc Blanco and this entire Chicago team is simply too fun not to enjoy watching.

People have been e-mailing me about Blanco all season. They've scoffed at Beckham-mania and insisted that the 34-year-old Blanco would be better than Becks. And turns out they've been right.

Blanco is the kind of competitor that you can't help but love. This season, we've watched him dive, embellish, grandstand, mock the referee, upbraid his teammates, disrespect his opponents and flash that brilliant scowl like a henchman in a Sam Peckinpah movie. But it's all entertainment. The Mexican superstar knows what sells in the cheap seats and in the luxury boxes -- competitiveness, audacity, creativity, drama and, of course, winning. He gets it, à la Stephen Colbert.

All of this, of course, eluded many commentators prior to his arrival in Chicago. Most people seemed to think he would have an impact in the stands, but that his on-the-field antics would wear thin. Many thought the game would be too fast for him. Some even believed he would tank it here.

Tank it? Blanco? Never. He's got an ego the size of Azteca Stadium. When he arrived here in July and everyone was nattering on about David Beckham this and David Beckham that, Blanco took it personally. Why's no one talking about me,muchachos? he asked and quickly did something to rectify the situation: He started scoring fantastic goals and turning Toyota Park into his own little Coliseum. Every touch, every pass, every trick cried out, Kirk Douglas-style: "I am Cuauhtémoc!"

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Last Thursday, he finally received his nationally broadcast due. The ESPN announcers made repeated apologies for doubting Blanco. If they had done their homework beforehand and watched Blanco in Mexico the season before he came to MLS, they could've saved face a little. The past year in the Mexican Primera División, he was on fire (again, no pun intended), scoring at will for Club América and entertaining the folks. And he has done the same thing since he got here.

Here's something to remember: Mexico also has playoffs. So the amplified intensity of the MLS postseason is nothing new to Blanco, unlike to Beckham and New York's Juan Pablo Ángel, who said the other day, "I don't quite understand the playoffs."

The Chicago bandwagon, however, is not being drawn by Blanco alone. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio is a passionate and well-drilled field general. He knows how to fold Blanco into the team and keep everyone motivated. He also brought in two of his protégés, Paulo Wanchope and Wilman Conde. Neither guy would be in Chicago if not for Osorio.

Furthermore, he has gotten the best out of his pair of young American strikers, Chad Barrett and Chris Rolfe. Barrett is like a locomotive without any rails. Finally healthy, Rolfe is a surgical attacker, blossoming under Osorio's intelligent schemes and creative encouragement. In back, Dasan Robinson and Gonzalo Segares have also grown immensely in the second half of the season. In short, this has very quickly become a balanced, potent Chicago side.

But -- there's always a "but," isn't there? -- is this really a team capable of winning the Cup? Is it even capable of getting by a fully operational D.C. United when they play the second leg Thursday night at RFK? Remember, United started the first leg without leading scorer Luciano Emilio and spiritual talisman Jaime Moreno.

If you ask me, yes. United is limping along right now. It's not just the injuries or its recent form (winless in five straight, in all competitions), but also the A-Rod-like distractions regarding the contract status of Christian Gómez and Moreno, both of whom appear to be leaving D.C. at the end of the season. These two have been the heart and soul of the club for the past few years and now they look set to jump ship.

Teams go one of two ways in this situation: They rally around for one last hurrah, or they fizzle out in a muddle of distraction. I foresee the latter. Because when you combine all that with Blanco Fever and Chicago Fire's good form, United looks entirely primed to get burned. Pun intended.