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If familiarity breeds contempt, then the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution hate each other on a level no two teams in MLS can match.
The Eastern Conference foes have made meeting in the playoffs a rite of passage, having done so for five of the past six years. This season, they will battle for a spot in the Eastern Conference final for a seventh time in the past decade and unlike in most of the previous meetings, there is a clear favorite.
Chicago isn't the favorite because it has dominated play this year, far from it. The Fire has battled injuries and inconsistency to reach the post-season. Chicago enters as the favorites because New England enters short-handed, missing midfielder Steve Ralston (out with a torn ACL) and still missing Taylor Twellman, who missed all but two games this year with a concussion. Without those two, the Revs have relied on Shalrie Joseph to help carry them this far, but it may not be enough to top the talent-laden Fire.
Can New England go much further against a talented Chicago team that may have just one last good run in its current group? Will Cuauhtemoc Blanco end his time with the Fire with a bang, or with a whimper?
Here is a closer look at the series, which begins Sunday in Foxboro, Mass. (2pm, FSC):
TOP MATCH-UPS TO WATCH
Shalrie Joseph vs. Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
While Jeff Larentowicz might spend more time pestering Blanco (assuming he starts), Joseph and Blanco are the keys to their teams' attacks and whoever does a better job of imposing his will should give his team the edge in this series. The real question here is just how motivated will Blanco be now that it is known he won't be back after this season?
Darrius Barnes vs. Brian McBride
Barnes played every single minute of the season this year for the Revs, a truly impressive mark for a rookie centerback. His reward is a battle against a dangerous veteran like McBride. If McBride can hold his ground and provide a useful target for Rolfe and Nyarko to run off of, the Revs will have trouble, but Barnes is strong and good in the air.
Emmanuel Osei vs. Patrick Nyarko
This battle of impressive Ghanaians will be fun to watch. While McBride and Barnes wrestle, Nyarko will try to evade the very tough Osei.
Marco Pappa vs. Kevin Alston
This one might be the series' best hope for some excitement. Pappa provides a creative threat on the flank, but can also race down the wing if given space. Alston has the speed to stay tight on Pappa, and can also get forward on the counter.
Wilman Conde vs. Kheli Dube
Dube is the closest thing the Revs have to a goal-scoring forward and New England will need him to shake free if they are going to create many chances. The problem with that is Conde, when healthy, is probably the league's best defender and entirely capable of shutting Dube down.
Edgaras Jankouskas and Justin Mapp. The last time these teams met (just two weeks ago) Jankauskas was a busy bee, taking shots and committing fouls with equal frequency. If he can be a disruptive force up top, the Fire will be forced to stay honest defensively. For Chicago, Mapp has been an enigma all season (if not his entire career) but if he can be a real threat on the wings, and provide some quality service, it should help ease the burden on Blanco and give McBride a better chance of finding the net.
New England has fought hard to get to the playoffs, but you need the weapons offensively to succeed in the playoffs and the Revs just don't have them. Chicago isn't without some flaws, and some question marks, but the Fire still has too much talent not to win this series. Having the first game be on the road, where Chicago is actually stronger, should help set the Fire up for comfortable task in game two at Toyota Park.
Chicago's many injuries might have given New England a chance, but with the likes of Gonzalo Segares, Tim Ward and John Thorrington working their way back from injuries, the Fire should have enough weapons to prevail.
We give the edge to the Fire, which we see posting a 2-0 aggregate series victory.
What do you think of the series? Think Chicago will take it, or do you see New England pulling off the upset?
Share your thoughts below.