For the Eastern Conference finalists, the similarities go beyond the presence of a dynamic playmaker, a quality left back, a solid holding midfielder, a rugged striker and a strong back four. Both teams are talented, hungry, well-coached, and long overdue heading into their meeting at Crew Stadium on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
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
"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
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
"They don't quit," says Rolfe, who wound up as the Fire's top scorer with nine goals, the same as Crew leader
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,
"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
For wide play, Columbus has
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.
"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."