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Fire teetering after a solid start

In recent years, as expansion and franchise relocation have altered the landscape of MLS, there have been several new rivalries that have sprung up, with last week's contest between Real Salt Lake and Colorado just the latest example. But this week's installment of MLS Primetime Thursday between FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire highlights a rivalry with a bit more history.

It was back in the late 1990s that this matchup was first forged, and it was a rivalry in which the action on the field sparked the passion in the stands, not the other way around. Chicago and Dallas were division rivals back then, and it was a case of familiarity definitely breeding contempt, especially in 1999, when the Fire's Dema Kovalenko broke the leg of Dallas defender Brandon Pollard during the playoffs. Dallas ultimately prevailed in that series with an epic Game 3 comeback from two goals down, while Chicago got its revenge two years later.

Realignment in 2002 saw the two rivals placed in different conferences, meaning they usually only see each other twice a season now, but the intensity of the matchup lingers.

Five story lines to follow

1. The Brimstone Cup

The moniker for this trophy was created by the fans of both sides and resulted from the teams' nicknames. FCD were originally known as the Burn and when juxtaposed with the Fire, the term brimstone is apt. The trophy goes to the winner of the season series, with a tie seeing the holder retain possession, Ryder Cup style. It was first awarded in 2001, with the Fire prevailing with the help of their playoff triumph, but since then it has been the sole property of Dallas, in spite of some very lean years in 2003 and 2004.

"There is extra motivation for us, and [the cup] adds a bit of spice to the game," Dallas head coach Steve Morrow said. "I think it's something that the players respect, and they want to win it for their fans."

2. Chicago struggles

Yes, it's early, but after getting off to a solid start, the Fire have been hurting in recent weeks. Chicago has lost two in a row, and earned the rather dubious distinction of not only being the first victims of expansion side Toronto FC, but conceding the first goals to them as well.

Of greater concern for head coach Dave Sarachan will be the fact that his side has conceded six goals in those two losses. For Sarachan, the defensive problems have multiple causes.

"In the last three games we had breakdowns both with players running out of midfield, and also individual, one-versus-one defending errors that we got punished for," Sarachan said. "I don't expect it will be a trend. We've got an honest group of guys who will correct it."

3. The ongoing saga of Carlos Ruiz

Eyebrows were raised in the preseason when Morrow named Ruiz captain, despite his history of going AWOL. And those fears were confirmed last week when Ruiz skipped two days of practice and was subsequently benched for most of last week's win at Kansas City. Rumors have also surfaced that Ruiz is on the trading block, in spite of the fact that his large salary would hamper such a move.

Morrow refused to be drawn into the speculation, and wouldn't even confirm that Ruiz would be back in the lineup, but don't be surprised to see "The Little Fish" lining up in the center circle once the whistle blows.

4. The Fire's lack of midfield production

Heading into this season, much was made of the increased expectations that placed on Fire forwards Chris Rolfe and Chad Barrett. So far, the two have been productive, with Rolfe in particular delivering the goods with four goals and three assists. What's interesting is that Logan Pause is the only other Fire player to have scored, which is a bit shocking given the ability of players like Justin Mapp, Ivan Guerrero, and Thiago. For the Fire to be successful on Thursday, finding a way to spread the goal-scoring load could prove critical.

5. FC Jekyll and Hyde

Dallas has been one of the bigger enigmas in the league so far this season. Dallas has been disappointing at home with two consecutive losses, but has the second-most road points in the league, and has banished two road demons in claiming wins at Los Angeles and in Kansas City, where it hadn't won in ages. Chicago, where this match will be played, has proven to be a far happier hunting ground. Dallas has taken two out of the last three matches on its opponent's home turf.

Five players to watch

1. Pablo Ricchetti, M, FC Dallas

One trend that has marked the early weeks of MLS has been the impact of some South American imports, especially from Argentina. One such player for Dallas has been Ricchetti, who in his debut last week showed an uncanny ability to break up opposing attacks and initiate a few of his own as well with some deft passing. And with Ricchetti now anchoring the midfield, that has freed other players to get into the attack.

"[Ricchetti] brings a lot of composure to the middle of the field," Morrow said. "He sees passes very early, and I think as the guys around him get more used to the way he plays, we'll see better combinations in the middle of the field. I was delighted with his contribution."

2. Chris Armas, M, Chicago

Sarachan opted to leave Armas at home last week against Toronto, and the Fire badly missed his presence and leadership, especially when sidekick Diego Gutierrez was hit with a red card in the first half. With Gutierrez suspended for this match, expect Chicago to rely on its inspirational captain even more.

"Having [Armas] in our team is like having a warm blanket," Sarachan said. "Everybody feels a little bit better, like they can accomplish more, and they are willing to do any of the dirty work required because they see Chris doing it at age 34. I've always said he's been the heart and soul of this team, and that hasn't changed."

3. Dario Sala, G, FC Dallas

Following his six-game suspension for his part in a playoff fracas with Colorado, Sala returned to the lineup against Kansas City, and looked like he had never been away, making several spectacular saves, including a three-save sequence that had the Wizards muttering to themselves. Given the inconsistent play of Dallas' back line, expect Sala to have another busy night.

4. Justin Mapp, M, Chicago

These days, it seems like opponents are resorting to the Hack-a-Mapp strategy, and the statistics bear this out. Mapp is currently the eighth most fouled player in the league, despite playing one (and in some cases two) fewer games than his rivals. Given Mapp's ability to take players one-on-one, the strategy is understandable, and while there is a temptation to think that the Chicago midfielder should get rid of the ball a bit quicker, Sarachan doesn't want him to change a thing.

"I won't ever discourage [Mapp] from running at guys, because there are few guys in the league who can do the things he can do while on the run with the ball," Sarachan said. "When he's in the final third of the field, he's got the green light to go."

5. Juan Toja, M, FC Dallas

The Colombian has made slow and steady progress in his debut season, and celebrated his first goal last week against Kansas City. And while it was tainted by what looked to be a handball, the play was indicative of how much more Toja has been willing to join the attack. Thursday will be another chance to see how much improvement Toja has made.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.