When the Chicago Fire last appeared on "MLS Primetime Thursday," on July 12, new head coach Juan Carlos Osorio received a brutal MLS baptism; a 4-0 beat-down at home to defending champions Houston. The loss completed a 1-8-3 stretch for Chicago, and any mention of making the playoffs would have seemed unfathomable.
Two months later, Osorio has not only gotten the Fire off life support, but the word "playoffs" is once again part of their vocabulary. Chicago has gone 4-2-2 in its past eight games, and the run has been enough to propel the Fire into the eighth and final playoff spot. With Colorado and Columbus nipping at their heels, however, the Fire will need to continue their solid form against Brimstone Cup rivals Dallas (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), which would love nothing better than to deliver a crushing blow to Chicago's postseason hopes.
Five story lines to watch
1. Cuauhtemoc Blanco vs. Denilson
Thursday's match will allow each team to showcase a high-priced, midseason acquisition.
Blanco has been a revelation since joining Chicago at the All-Star break. He has tallied three goals and five assists in just eight matches, and his exemplary attitude has put to rest concerns that he would be a divisive presence in the locker room.
"What Blanco brings to the field is not only the ability to see the final pass, but the ability to execute it," Osorio said. "His vision is second to none, and his creativity can match anybody."
Denilson has found it a bit tougher to settle in, though he has only played in three games since joining Dallas on August 28. Still, the Brazilian's dribbling should provide an interesting contrast to Blanco's precision passing.
"[Denilson] has shown glimpses of just pure brilliance on the ball," said Dallas head coach Steve Morrow. "As he nears full fitness, I think we'll see a little bit more from him."
2. The Brimstone Cup
The Chicago-Dallas rivalry is one that was forged in 1999 during a particularly contentious playoff series in which Dallas prevailed on a late goal from Ariel Graziani. In 2001, the Brimstone Cup was born, and since then, Dallas has been the primary holder, having kept possession since 2002.
This year's edition kicked of with the Hoops prevailing 2-1 over the Fire on May 17, so the odds are long that Chicago will be able to wrest back control of the trophy. Even if the Fire were to win on Thursday, the points would be even at three apiece, and unless the teams meet in the playoffs, Dallas would retain possession -- a split in the season series results in the current holder keeping the cup.
3. Chicago's resurgence
Having only been in the league for two months, it's doubtful that Osorio will receive much Coach of the Year consideration, if he proves successful in getting the Fire into the playoffs, he'd be more than deserving of a few votes. At the heart of Chicago's revival has been an attack boosted by the arrival of Blanco as well as an improved Fire defense that has conceded just five goals in its past eight games.
"Without being arrogant, I think the main change has been work," Osorio said. "We work on defending every single day, as well as attacking. I think the hard work is paying off."
4. Dallas scuffling
After getting off to a surprisingly good start, the Hoops have slowly reverted to the kind of inconsistency that many predicted for them at the beginning of the season. Dallas is an even 3-3 since the All-Star break, and like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, the Hoops either been very good, or downright awful – like they were in the second half of Saturday's 4-2 loss to New England. Injuries to the likes of Kenny Cooper and Juan Toja and the team's exertions in the U.S. Open Cup are partially to blame for the team's uneven form, but Morrow is more intent on getting his defense back on track.
"We look at our defensive record, and we've certainly conceded too many goals," Morrow said. "I think there have been a couple of 4-0 games that have made our goal difference a little lopsided, but it's something that I believe -- and the players believe -- needs to get better."
5. Chicago shuffling
Osorio's acquisition of defender Wilman Conde has bolstered the Fire's defense; it allowed the Chicago coach to use his preferred three-back alignment. But with the Colombian suspended due to his ejection last week in a 2-2 tie with New York, Osorio is pondering a switch back to four defenders. The Fire coach added that the availability of injured midfielder Chris Armas will have a bearing on which system he employs against Dallas.
Five players to watch
1. Carlos Ruiz, F, Dallas
Six goals in 18 league matches represents a lower strike rate than usual for the Guatemalan, but against New England, Ruiz showed signs that he may be heating up at the right time. He scored twice against the Revolution, including a bullet header late in the game that brought Dallas within a goal. He also appears to be benefiting from the presence of target forward Abe Thompson, whose hold-up play has allowed Ruiz to find more space on the field.
2. Paulo Wanchope, F, Chicago
Another midseason acquisition, Wanchope has been slower to adapt to MLS than Blanco, although his goal in a 1-0 victory over Columbus on Sept. 8 could prove to be a turning point in the playoff race. Although the Costa Rican has been ineffective at times, Osorio refused to single him out, noting that the entire forward line, "needs to be more clinical in front of goal." With Blanco providing the service, Wanchope should get plenty of chances to show off his goal-poaching instincts.
3. Pablo Ricchetti, M, Dallas
With a right ankle injury continuing to hobble Toja, more will be asked of Ricchetti, including making the kind of simple passes that will help Dallas keep possession. Given that the Argentine tends to occupy a deep-lying role in midfield, he'll also be called upon to track Blanco, who tends to pop up all over the field.
4. Gonzalo Segares, D, Chicago
The fact that Osorio can employ various defensive alignments comes down to Segares' versatility. The Costa Rican can be used as a man-marker in a three-back system or as a left fullback in a four defender alignment. Systems aside, Conde's suspension means that it will be up to Segares to help lock down the left side of the Chicago defense. Segares did just that on Saturday, and even popped up for Chicago's equalizer when he nodded home Blanco's free kick in the 70th minute.
5. Drew Moor, D, Dallas
After getting torched by New England midfielder Khano Smith last weekend, it's imperative that Moor has a strong bounce-back game against the Fire. It was Smith's blistering pace that proved too much for Moor against the Revs, and although Chicago's attack isn't as quick, it does have skilled players like Chris Rolfe who can make the most of their opportunities.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.