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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake are in similar spots as last season -- one victory from reaching the MLS Cup title match.
On Saturday, one team will change its fate and the other will miss out yet again for the right to play in the finale, which is set for Qwest Field in Seattle on Nov. 22. The Fire host RSL in this season's Eastern Conference final at 7 p.m. at Toyota Park (televised on Fox Soccer Channel).
|The Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake have met twice this season. Saturday's match has to be considered the biggest one of this year.|
The glaring focus from the Fire's standpoint is that RSL brings some speed in the front line, particularly forward Robbie Findley, who scored 12 goals in the regular season.
"We have to keep our shape well and play disciplined soccer and not try to really 'outscore' them," Fire defender Brandon Prideaux said. "We need to make sure we defend first and defend well and stay organized. With our quality, I think the goals will come. The times that they're really dangerous [are] on counterattacks, when they have time and space to go at guys. If we keep our shape and stay organized as a team, I think we'll take care of them."
Some promising news for Chicago is that defender Wilman Conde was taken off the MLS injury report Friday. He was training this week but had been limited for much of this season because of an assortment of problems such as hamstring issues, hip issues and flu-like symptoms. Should Conde return to the fold, that would fill a void created by the need to counter RSL's fast attack.
Securing the first goal always is important, and that is amplified against Real's offense. Chicago does not want to dig itself out of an early hole.
"We've shown this year that if we unfortunately go down a goal, we do have the fight to get back into games, which I think is a difference this year as opposed to last year, when we didn't come back from any deficits," Fire midfielder John Thorrington said. "We obviously want to go out and get that first goal. We don't want to leave ourselves too exposed."
RSL has been the most up-and-down team in MLS this season. Real's offensive capabilities are a given. They scored three unanswered goals to drop the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They beat the New England Revolution, 6-0, in a regular-season match and had three other four-goal efforts. The Fire did not score even four goals in a match this season.
On the flip side, RSL had a winless May and a winless September.
"It's been an interesting season, to say the least," RSL coach Jason Kreis said in a conference call earlier this week. "We've been very, very up and down, and at times maddeningly inconsistent. But what we have shown this year is that when we're good, we're very, very good. I think over the past three, four, five games, we've been just that."NOTES:
• In the 2008 playoffs, the Fire fell to the Columbus Crew 2-1 and RSL lost 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls.
• The Fire held the upper hand against RSL in the regular season. Chicago topped Real 1-0 on Aug. 1 at Toyota Park, then managed a 1-all draw on Sept. 12 at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL salvaged the draw with a 72nd-minute goal by Jamison Olave.
• Fire defender Tim Ward no longer is on the MLS injury report, but defender Gonzalo Segares remains on the list with a right MCL sprain. Midfielder Baggio Husidic also is questionable with right hamstring tightness. For Real Salt Lake, midfielder Javier Morales is questionable (right Achilles contusion) and defender David Horst is probable (left groin strain).
• Since the current playoff format was adopted in 2003, the Fire have posted a 1-3 record in conference championships. The lone victory was in 2003, a 1-0 overtime win against the Revolution at Soldier Field. All three losses came on the road.