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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire started their offseason earlier than they would have liked, so now some of the second-guessing and analysis begins.
What could -- or should -- the Fire have done differently to change their fate during Saturday's 1-0 loss (5-4 in a shootout) to Real Salt Lake in the Eastern Conference final at Toyota Park?
The Fire were on the brink of reaching the Nov. 22 MLS Cup, but they could not pull off the victory in front of an energetic crowd of 21,723. Not taking away from Real's superb playoff run and their efforts, but Chicago had its moments to head to Seattle, where the Los Angeles Galaxy stamped their ticket in the Western Conference.
• Capitalize on run of play: The Fire picked up their game in the second half, and there were some growing gaps within Real's defense. Chicago took nine shots in the second half, with two on goal. That second number needed to be higher, and there were a few moments when Chicago was hovering around the top of the box and couldn't get a strong shot on goal. That happened to midfielder Chris Rolfe a couple of times in the match, resulting in shots wide left of the goal.
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Brian McBride's header that bounced off the crossbar in the 27th minute was one of those moments that could have changed Saturday's outcome.
There were some big moments throughout regulation that could have turned the tide for the Fire. The first was Brian McBride's header that hit the crossbar in the 27th minute. Cuauhtémoc Blanco took a corner kick from the left wing and McBride tried for the header toward the far right post. Chicago maintained its attack afterward but did not register another big scoring chance later in the sequence.
In the 64th minute, Marco Pappa had two shots that were denied by Real's defense. Pappa's left-footed strike from above the box was stopped by diving RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Then RSL defender Jamison Olave blocked Pappa's second attempt.
In the 86th minute, John Thorrington and McBride had the numbers in their run, which was created from a back heel pass from Blanco. Thorrington passed off to his left to McBride, and McBride only managed a rolling shot that went wide right of the goal. It was a high-percentage chance that lost quite a bit of steam at the very end.
• Shootout kicks telegraphed?: Fire head coach Denis Hamlett did not want to answer this question after the match, but RSL goalkeeper Rimando must have seen or guessed something in Chicago's PK attempts. From my view in press row, Brandon Prideaux's body language looked like he was going to shoot to Rimando's left. Rimando made that save quite easily, and he did the same against Logan Pause and John Thorrington -- both diving to his left. Thorrington's strike probably was the most deserving to go in, but Rimando did his job to lift RSL in the shootout.
"You pick a spot, you hit it, he makes a good save," Thorrington said. "What can I say? I feel horrible. I feel like I let my team down."
"Someone like [Rimando] just feels it, I think," McBride said. "I'm sure he'll tell you that something inside of him was telling him that that's where he was going. He did well."
The shootout situation felt like a worst-case scenario from the Fire's standpoint. Aside from the negative result earlier in the year in the SuperLiga final against Tigres UANL in a shootout, the Fire also were without some good options to take the kicks. Rolfe was taken out of the match for Justin Mapp in the 109th minute. And then Patrick Nyarko took a huge knock to the head in overtime, and Hamlett did not even consider Nyarko's kicking services. Hamlett said that Nyarko would have been one of the Fire's kick takers just after the first five if not for the dizziness he was feeling.
• D posts shutout, but lacks offensive prowess: It is difficult to criticize a group that has undergone so much turnover from the start of the season. On Saturday, the defense did its job once again by holding Real's speedsters scoreless. There were a couple of glitches in which goalkeeper Jon Busch came through with some big saves. So from a scoreboard standpoint, the Fire handled that aspect.
But a characteristic that was lacking in this back four was its ability to make an impact on the offensive end. This is one area of the game that Chicago has missed with the long-term absences of injured outside backs Gonzalo Segares and Tim Ward. That versatility factor took a hit in the second half of the season.
Center defender Wilman Conde made a long-awaited appearance when he came into the game in the 95th minute. And sure enough in the 96th minute Conde came close to placing a header on goal from a Blanco pass. It was this defense-to-offense impact that sorely was missed as the injuries to the back line mounted in the latter portion of the 2009 campaign.