When Juan Carlos Osorio bolted the Chicago Fire last winter to take up the reins of the New York Red Bulls, he probably expected that he would work the same magic at Giants Stadium that he did at Toyota Park, when he helped the Fire make last year's playoffs.
As it turns out, Osorio's New York experience is mirroring his time in Chicago a little too closely. Last year, it wasn't until the final game of the season that the Fire wrapped up a playoff berth, and in 2008, the Red Bulls find themselves in the same situation as they face Chicago on "MLS Primetime Thursday" (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com).
New York currently has a tenuous hold on the eighth and final playoff spot, and while a loss won't necessarily eliminate the Red Bulls, a win will guarantee them a berth in the postseason.
As for Chicago, its playoff opponent was decided long ago, with New England set to face the Fire in the first round. Yet home-field advantage remains to be determined, meaning Denis Hamlett's outfit still has something to play for.
Five story lines to follow
1. Osorio's Chicago return
Talk about karmic overload; Osorio not only needs a result against his old team but also needs to get it in front of the same fans he jilted last winter. Whatever animosity remained between Osorio and his former players was likely purged during the Colombian's first return trip to Toyota Park on Sept. 6. But you can bet the fans, especially the hard-core support in Section 8, would take special delight in seeing Chicago put a dent in New York's postseason plans.
New York at Chicago
9 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
2. Chicago's crumbling defense
Chicago had the league's stingiest defense for the first 23 games of the season, but lately the Fire's back line has been Galaxy-like, conceding 13 goals in their past six matches. And with defender Gonzalo Segares suspended, Chicago will have to make do without one of its more consistent performers.
"We can't continue to give bad balls away," said Hamlett. "We have to be tuned in on set plays, and on other plays we have to clear the ball better. The onus is on us to be a little bit cleaner, a little bit sharper in our own defensive third."
3. One for the road
The "one" in this case refers to the number of away wins New York has had this season in league play, but Osorio has taken heart from Saturday's 3-1 home victory over Columbus. The win came in the wake of suspensions given to goalkeeper Jon Conway and defender Jeff Parke for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and Osorio is convinced that his team is now in the right frame of mind to garner its first road victory since a May 10 triumph over Los Angeles.
"We have some strong characters on this team, and we have reacted very positive to this whole [suspension] incident," said Osorio. "We know as a team that we have had some adversity this season, and we have faced it, and we have come out with some good results."
4. What home-field advantage?
A debate has long raged about whether higher-seeded teams get much of a home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Yet Hamlett is among those putting plenty of value on having the second game at home, and securing that spot on Thursday would have other benefits for the Fire, as well.
"We're also playing to not only finish second in our conference, but third overall in the league, because that has some implications for SuperLiga and the [CONCACAF] Champions League," said Hamlett. "So we're not only playing for the near future, but the far future, as well."
5. The mad scientist
When the Red Bulls received word that Conway and Parke had been suspended, the silver lining was that in Osorio, they had a manager who changed his lineup so frequently that the team would barely notice. As it turned out, the Red Bulls delivered a convincing victory, albeit against a Columbus team resting six starters. So on the back of that win, now is the time for a little consistency, right? Nope.
"I always analyze every game as it comes, depending on what the opposition might need, what we need," said Osorio. "Sometimes it's a guessing game, but as always, I will analyze that in detail and then make the appropriate decision."
Five players to watch
1. Cuauhtemoc Blanco, M/F, Chicago
The former Mexican international seems to perform in inverse relation to the weather: The colder it gets, the better he plays. After enduring a goalless summer, Blanco has begun to heat up, with three goals and three assists in his past four games -- although Hamlett argues that Blanco's play has been steady, despite the lack of numbers.
"Yeah, the goals weren't coming, and the assists weren't coming, but [Blanco] was still doing the things for us that he's capable of doing," said Hamlett. "During that stretch, some of our guys weren't scoring goals, but now they're finishing and he's finishing. I also think that he knows the playoffs are around the corner, and this is the time of year he enjoys."
2. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York
Despite coping with an assortment of injuries, the Colombian continues to be the Red Bulls' go-to scorer, delivering five goals and one assist in New York's past six games. Of course, Angel paid the price for scoring on Saturday, colliding with Columbus goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum and taking a knock on his knee in the process. But Osorio is optimistic his star striker will be ready on Thursday.
3. Justin Mapp, M, Chicago
Mapp also appears to be getting hot at the right time. The left midfielder lost his starting spot for a few weeks in September, but worked his way back and broke a scoring drought of his own in his team's 3-2 loss at Toronto on Saturday.
"I think we've said to [Mapp], 'Just be more aggressive in the final third,'" said Hamlett. "He's a guy that still has that ability, the willingness to get behind the defense and go at guys one-on-one. ... You're seeing that now. He wants to be a difference-maker."
4. Danny Cepero, G, New York
Cepero had an MLS debut for the ages against Columbus, becoming the first goalkeeper in league history to score a goal, tallying on an 80-yard free kick late in the match. While Osorio was pleased to see Cepero enter the history books, he doesn't want him to give up his day job just yet.
"It was an amazing debut, but it was good because of [Cepero's] goalkeeping," said Osorio. "In the second half, with the score 2-1, he kept us leading the game. ... Then he managed to score that goal. He didn't mean to do it, but at the end of the day that's what this game is about. Sometimes you take chances, and you get rewarded."
5. Wilman Conde, D, Chicago
After demanding a preseason trade to New York, Colombian defender Conde knows a thing or two about having to win back the fans. And after securing a starting spot in midseason, Conde has done that, although he was among those responsible for Chicago's recent loss at Toronto, conceding a penalty that led to TFC's second goal. That gaffe aside, Conde has formed a solid partnership alongside Bakary Soumare, and his sharp passing out of the back is often counted on to kick-start the Fire's offense.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.