Chicago has lost in two MLS Cups, the 2000 and '03 editions, after capturing the title in its first season a decade ago. Columbus, an original member of MLS when it began in 1996, has never reached the final hurdle, much less cleared it.
Among the subplots are the presence of MVP finalists Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the return of Fire striker Brian McBride and goalie Jon Busch to their former MLS team, and the matchup of Coach of the Year Sigi Schmid and rookie head coach Denis Hamlett.
"There are a lot of similarities in both teams," says Schmid, "because both teams play with one striker and the other striker kind of roams around a little bit, whether it's Blanco or Guillermo. I like our pace on the flanks. [Chicago's Chris] Rolfe's got good pace but I think our pace is amongst the best of any team in the league and certainly that's something we always look to exploit every time we play."
In three meetings this year, Columbus and Chicago battled to a pair of 2-2 ties in league play and a rousing 3-2 Fire victory in the U.S. Open Cup. In the playoffs, each team has scored three goals by three different players. Their leading goal scorers each tallied nine times.
Yep, it's a toss-up.
As the regular-season results attest, neither team has been able to hold off the other upon gaining a lead.
In the last meeting at Toyota Park a month ago, McBride scored the first and last goals of the game as the Fire went up 1-0, then had to rally from a 2-1 deficit to get the tie. At Crew Stadium in early July, Chicago led, 2-0, after 25 minutes on goals by Rolfe and Calen Carr, but Columbus battled back when backup Emmanuel Ekpo and super-sub Steven Lenhart converted Schelotto assists.
"They don't quit," says Rolfe, who wound up as the Fire's top scorer with nine goals, the same as Crew leader Alejandro Moreno. "The previous year, once you got a goal on them, they would drop their heads."
This year, the Fire has struggled when it conceded the first goal. In 10 games this season, Chicago has trailed, 1-0. Its record in that situation is 1-8-1.
Schelotto and Blanco have combined for 14 goals and 30 assists this season, and being deployed as de facto second forwards has opened up variations in other parts of the field.
McBride and Moreno are the strikers, Logan Pause and Brian Carroll are the holding mids, and John Thorrington and Brad Evans serve as central conduits between attack and defense. Of the latter pair, Evans might be more offensively inclined, but Thorrington -- who scored a couple of crucial goals earlier in the season -- has provided critical tackles and blocks in recent weeks, a couple of which bordered on fouls.
"Those guys work so well together," says keeper Busch of teammates Pause and Thorrington. "John's like the Energizer bunny, he's all over the place. He goes box-to-box. One minute he's blocking a shot in our penalty area and the next thing you know he's got a chance at the other end. The work rate on both of those guys' part is just fantastic."
Carroll, cast loose during the winter after five seasons with D.C. United, set up Evans for the first goal last weekend against Kansas City with a chip over the back line that Evans lobbed over keeper Kevin Hartman. Evans also nailed a long-range goal in the regular-season finale that erased D.C. United's faint playoff hopes.
For wide play, Columbus has Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven, who combined for nine goals. Chicago counters with Justin Mapp on the left and Rolfe on the right. Mapp tied a career high with eight assists, and Rolfe, a forward for most of his career, is an evasive, tricky pest whether he stays wide or veers inside.
Chicago conceded 33 goals, only one more than defensive leader Houston. The Crew's mark of 36 goals allowed ranked third.
Each team has an attacking outside back, a more conservative counterpart, and solid central defenders. Frankie Hejduk storms up the right side for Columbus while Gino Padula looks for passing opportunities; Gonzalo Segares gets forward on the left as Brandon Prideaux plays a more cautious game, especially if Rolfe slides into the middle.
Chicago defender Bakary Soumare was a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year; the honor went to Crew counterpart Chad Marshall. Soumare's central partner, Wilman Conde, has scored the only postseason goal tallied by either team on a set play; he headed in a Mapp free kick for the second goal against New England in the 3-0 win.
"They're a little bit bigger than us," says Schmid. "When you look at Conde and Soumare and Prideaux and McBride, they've got some pretty good size. I'm sure they're going to try and use that to their advantage on free kicks and corner kicks."
Says Hamlett, "Columbus is a dangerous team because they can score goals from different parts of the field. They are good on set pieces and they are as a whole a good team. Defensively you can't focus on just one or two players because they are an all around good team."