As homecomings go, the looming reunion between Chicago Fire forward Brian McBride and his old team, the Columbus Crew, couldn't be more awkward. For the first eight years of his MLS career, McBride did his utmost to drive the Crew to an MLS Cup, falling in the conference final on four occasions. Yet with another Eastern Conference title at stake on "MLS Primetime Thursday" (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), it is McBride and his current team, the Fire, who are standing in the Crew's way.
It's an irony that isn't lost on the Chicago forward, yet while his thoughts have sometimes drifted to his pending return to Crew Stadium, the goal of reaching his first MLS Cup final overshadows any sentimental feelings.
"I do have some history [in Columbus], but it's not the important thing that ... I'm going to be focusing on," said McBride on Monday's conference call with the media. "The most important thing is this game, and how we prepare ourselves as a team."
Given how evenly matched the two sides are, one can expect McBride's words to be heeded by his teammates. In fact, a rundown of the respective lineups reveals few if any advantages for either team. Chicago has one of the league's premier playmakers in Cuauhtemoc Blanco, but MVP candidate Guillermo Barros Schelotto is on the other side. The Crew's Robbie Rogers is one of the league's up-and-coming flank players, but the Fire's Chris Rolfe has been equally effective.
With so little separating the two teams, McBride could prove to be a difference-maker on Thursday, especially given his prowess on set pieces. Yet when talk first surfaced in early summer that McBride was ending his stint in the English Premier League with Fulham and was heading to Chicago, some speculated that he was a luxury the Fire didn't really need. After all, the first half of the season had seen Chicago boast one of the league's best offenses. But the summer doldrums hit the Fire offense hard, and McBride was welcomed as a player who could help reignite the team's attack.
Chicago at Columbus
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
When McBride finally arrived in late August following the Olympics, his impact wasn't immediate, with Blanco's freelancing ways adding to the difficulty of settling in. But a simple set of instructions from coach Denis Hamlett helped McBride accelerate the acclimatization process.
"Denis pulled me aside and said he just wanted me to be more central and occupy the two center backs," said McBride.
This positional stability proved to be an ideal foil for Blanco, who could pop in the soft pockets of the opposition's defense without worrying about McBride crowding his space. The change also proved to be a boon for flank players like Rolfe and Justin Mapp.
"It's nice for our guys to now look up and see a big target guy that can hold the ball, can win balls in the air, and just has a real presence," Hamlett said of McBride. "That has made us a much better team."
This is evident not only in the five goals and two assists McBride has recorded since his arrival, but also in the play of Blanco and Rolfe, who have combined for six goals and six assists in the past month.
Continuing that run against Columbus will take some doing, however. The downside of Blanco's unpredictability is that it can compromise the team's defensive shape, something McBride knows the Crew will be only too happy to exploit.
"Columbus is very good at getting at teams on the break," said McBride. "They'll make you pay for the littlest of mistakes, because they have pace, they have width and they're strong defensively."
The same can be said of the Fire, and McBride will be hoping that for once, he'll emerge on top in an Eastern Conference final.
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.