FOXBOROUGH - The Chicago Fire nearly blindsided the Revolution in the playoffs last year.
The Revolution rallied, however, after trailing for 108 minutes in the two-game aggregate series, earning a victory on penalty kicks and going on to play in the MLS Cup.
But the Revolution seem prepared for the Fire this time, a home game tonight at 7:30 for the Eastern Conference championship. The Revolution have gained confidence from a US Open Cup victory last month and shutouts (0-0 and 1-0) against New York in the first round of the playoffs.
So far, the Revolution's playoff run has been notable as much for good fortune as competence.
Last year, Clint Dempsey and Shalrie Joseph both were knocked out of action after being hit from behind against the Fire, Dempsey sustaining an ankle injury and Joseph being suspended for retaliating. Last week, though, the Revolution capitalized as New York's Juan Pablo Angel sustained a concussion, Taylor Twellman scoring the only goal of the series while the Red Bulls played with 10 men.
The Revolution have advanced past the Fire three of the last four times they have met in the playoffs. In conference final matches, the Fire took a 1-0 extra-time win in 2003, and the Revolution were victorious, 1-0, in '05.
"Everyone is healthy and fresh and focused," Joseph said yesterday. "We've been there before and we know what we need to do to get to the final. We have this game at home and it's going to be difficult, but with our fans behind us, we're confident."
The result could be determined by the play of defensive midfielders Chris Armas (Chicago) and Joseph. The Fire took a 2-1 win over the Revolution Oct. 6, their aggressive tackling in the midfield disrupting the Revolution attack, and also setting up Cuauhtemoc Blanco to launch counterattacks.
"Chicago is a better possession team than they have been in the past," Joseph said. "Armas is one of the best midfielders in the league and it's going to be a test containing Blanco. But we know that if we defend well as a team, we're capable of coming up with a win.
"The last game, they did beat us, but we know what we have to do this time."
The restructured Revolution midfield showed signs of producing in the New York series. The only goal resulted from a Michael Parkhurst stop in central defense, followed by a quick clearance to Joseph, who found Steve Ralston running through the middle of the field to set up Twellman.
"We feel we have as good a midfield as there is in the league," said Revolution coach Steve Nicol. "We can match up with whoever they play there."
Ralston has taken on a role in which he is a playmaker and also in position to make runs toward the goal similar to those of Andy Dorman, who scored seven goals in the first 15 games of the season but is now in a reserve role.
"We've been begging [Ralston] to make that run; it's one that Andy was making all season," Joseph said. "I just saw space open up and got him the ball, and he and Taylor did the rest.
"That's what the playoffs are about. One goal in the playoffs can make the difference."
Nicol closed the final five minutes of practice to the media while the team practiced penalty kicks. "We're not planning for penalties," Nicol said. "But it was basically, who wants to take one, take one. But you don't get anything for scoring [yesterday]." . . . In 10 Revolution-Fire playoff meetings, the home team has won nine times, with one tie in a two-game aggregate series. "From our point of view, we have the home crowd behind us," Nicol said. "That's an obvious advantage." . . . Tonight's referee, Kevin Stott, officiated the final game of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2002, as the Revolution advanced to the MLS Cup with a 2-2 tie with Columbus in Game 3, and last year, a 1-0 Revolution win at D.C. United. Stott also refereed the 2005 MLS Cup final, which the Revolution lost, 1-0, to Los Angeles. Stott officiated the Revolution's 2-0 win over Chicago in the '02 playoffs and the Fire's 6-0 win over the Revolution in the 2000 playoffs . . . Ralston is a game away from the US professional record of 370 set by Bill McPherson in the 1920s and '30s.
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.