Chicago looks to have New England's number
Remember the machine in the movie "Total Recall" that was used to wipe out people's memories? Given the way the New England Revolution have played during the past two months, and with a two-leg playoff series against Chicago set to begin this week on "MLS Primetime Thursday" (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Revs head coach Steve Nicol probably wishes he had one at his disposal.
The Revs stumbled to a 1-5-4 finish, but they also lost three times to Chicago during the regular season by a combined score of 9-1. And although Nicol is keen to correct the mistakes made in those games, he's leaning more toward a "total amnesia" approach in terms of preparing for Thursday's match, even though New England has dumped the Fire out of the playoffs each of the past three seasons.
"We're only interested in what we do and what we can do," Nicol said. "If [the record against Chicago] had been the other way about, we'd be approaching it the same way. It doesn't change much for us."
Foremost on Nicol's fix-it list is to figure out how to cope without injured playmaker Steve Ralston. When the midfielder went down with a broken leg on Oct. 11 against Kansas City, Nicol thought he had sufficient time to adjust. But red cards to midfielders Gabriel Badilla and Khano Smith in this past weekend's rematch against the Wizards have put a significant crimp in those plans, and it's safe to say that Nicol is no closer to finding a solution than he was when Ralston first went down. With the offense out of sync, mistakes have magnified on both sides of the ball.
Chicago at New England
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
"We're getting punished for every wee thing we do wrong," Nicol said. "Sometimes we have passed the ball well, but haven't been penetrating really. We're hoping to get that breakthrough. We're going about things the right way, but at the present time, all the breaks we're getting are all bad ones.
"But we'll stick with it. We're six games without a win, but we're also three games away from another MLS Cup final."
Things have been going better of late for Chicago. The Fire's once-dormant attack has exploded for 13 goals in its past five games, and attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco appears to have shaken off his summer slump. Ironically, these developments have Chicago head coach Denis Hamlett wishing his team could suffer from some amnesia as well, although his preference is for it to be more selective.
"These next two games have nothing to with what was done in the past [against New England]," Hamlett said. "But we know from the games we played against them that we can take that success and remind ourselves what we did well in terms of attacking and defending."
That will include using Blanco's tendency to drift all over the field to maximum advantage. This approach has long created confusion for opponents' defenses, with opponents unsure of whom to mark. But this uncertainty can cut both ways. Teammates have to be mindful of not clogging the spaces where Blanco likes to pop up. And when the ball turns over, it can leave some Chicago midfielders in unfamiliar parts of the field and thus unsure of whom to cover.
But after one and a half seasons with the mercurial Mexican, the Fire appear to have a solid understanding of how to complement Blanco's undeniable skill. Chris Rolfe's hat trick last week against New York was a prime example.
Preparing his team defensively will prove a bit trickier for Hamlett, given the changes in personnel that the Revs will be forced to make. But the Fire manager isn't expecting too many alterations.
"There is still a system that [New England] plays," Hamlett said. "Even though certain guys aren't there, it's the same system, and they put different guys in there and do what's required. I expect different guys to step up, because they're a good team, and that's what good teams do."
Whether New England can completely forget its recent struggles -- and emerge victorious -- is a different matter entirely.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.