The day was November 13, 2009. The location, our very own Toyota Park. The Chicago Fire had scuffled in recent months but now they were back. Chivas USA was defeated in the last game of the season and they clinched for the playoffs. In the first round of the playoffs, the Fire defeated hated rivals New England with a dramatic 83' minute Cuauhtemoc Blanco goal. The semi-finals lay ahead and the opponent was Real Salt Lake - the jokers who barely qualified for the playoffs and lucked into beating Columbus to advance to the semi-finals.
Blanco, Chris Rolfe, John Thorrington, and Brian McBride were rocking the offense. Gonzalo Segares, Wilman Conde and C.J. Brown were solid along the back line. Brandon Prideaux seemed destined to finish his career playing in his hometown Seattle, the site of the MLS Cup Final. In the most tragic of circumstances, it was Prideaux who missed the penalty kick that eliminated the Fire from the 2009 MLS Playoffs. We still thought RSL was lucky. We still thought the Fire would come back en fuego in 2010.
Now 308 days later, it's all different, it's all changed.
Tomorrow the date will be September 17, 2010, the location will be the Rio Tinto in Salt Lake City and these teams have completely switched roles. Real Salt Lake is in a good position for the Supporters' Shield and they even sit pretty in their CONCACAF Champions League group. 10 of Real Salt Lake's 11 leaders in Minutes Played - Nat Borcher, Nick Rimando, Jamison Olave, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Robbie Russell, Chris Wingert, Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Fabian Espindola - were with the team last year. The new guy in the top 11? Alvaro Saborio. He just happens to lead the team in goals. I'm haven't even brought up USMNT player Robbie Findley. I could make Saturday's matchup more imposing by pointing out RSL Soapbox's line that Eastern Conference opponents are 0-0-7 and have been outscored 20-2 at Rio Tinto in 2010, but is that any surprise with the consistency RSL and head coach Jason Kreis have been able to build?
With the Fire projected lineup, we are again the opposite of our Utah opponents. We have gone through 3 goaltenders since last November, 4 or 6 LBs, 4 or 5 RBs, numerous formations, there is no single starting striker and it seems new players have turn the turnstiles at Toyota Park just as often as fans have this year. Before giving up total hope, consider this.
There is the proverbial "they are due for a loss at home". Not much comfort I know... but how about this? The Fire are finally healthy (John Thorrington and Dasan Robinson are the only doubtfuls for Saturday's game). It looks like the playoff desperation is getting coach Carlos de los Cobos and he hints at starting two forwards tomorrow. Nery Castilo will definitely be one of them. If we have a 4-3-1-2 lineup of Kinney, Conde, Brown, Segares; Nyarko, Pause, Pappa; Ljungberg; John, Castillo, with McBride, Carr, Husidic, and Krol off the bench and Sean Johnson between the pipes, is there anyone who calls themselves Fire that is not excited by that lineup? There is no question that is choice starting XI at this point. We haven't had a choice starting XI all season.
The odds are long and the season is getting very short but we finally have what I believe are the guys we need. Take a chance, say a prayer, garner up some hope even if you have kicked it to the side. Who knows? Maybe the Fire will be No. 8 seed holding the MLS Cup this year and everything will have come full circle.