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21 November 10:48 am

I'm a morning person. So when I saw Jalil Anibaba online today, I thought why not see how things have been going through his first few days training at Atletico Madrid. We talk Ja's touring of the training facilities and stadium, how he plans to spend Thanksgiving and his picking up of the Spanish lisp. Enjoy!

Jeff Crandall: How has your training stint gone so far?

Jalil Anibaba: It’s been going really well. I’m having a great time out here and I’m really loving the experience so far. The training facilities are top class. It’s separate from the stadium which is in the city itself. Amazing grass and turf fields and really everything you could need for training.

JC: Who are you training with?

JA: I’m training with the B team. The first day we scrimmaged the first team. They provided good competition and a great experience. It is rewarding to be able to measure yourself against guys that have proven success in winning the Europa League last season.

JC: Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, so how do you plan to celebrate it there in Spain tomorrow?

JA: Of course I’m American at heart and unfortunately I’m away from home and my family over Thanksgiving. I’m probably going to Skype in with the family before they eat dinner and say hello. That’ll do for me.

JC: Have you been able to get into the city yet?

JA: Yeah, some of the representatives from the club took me into the city. I got to see their stadium and museum, the locker room and all their facilities. It was a great experience.

JC: Have you had paella yet?

JA: I haven’t had paella in Spain yet but I’ve had it lots of times because my stepmother’s mom is from Spain actually. She cooks it for us all the time. Spanish food is really nothing new to me to be honest.

JC: How is your Spanish? Are you speaking with a lisp yet?

JA: My Spanish is okay. I can speak a bit and I know enough to get by when I need to. The lisp throws me off but you have to adapt!

JC: What have you been doing with your down time?

JA: I’ve treated my down time as seriously as I do back in Chicago.  Making sure I get enough rest in between sessions is the primary focus.  However, if situations permit, I will explore.  Like I said earlier, I got the chance to tour their stadium and all their facilities and that was amazing.  From what I've seen, the city of Madrid is beautiful to say the very least.

JC: How have the players received you? Have they talked to you about what MLS is like?

JA: The other players have been great.  They have received me well and they treat me with respect and kindness.  Many are curious about MLS and how much the league has grown in recent years.  From what I have experienced thus far, it's safe to say our league's growth has expanded beyond our shores and people around the world are becoming more aware of what we are doing in the US.

JC: Any chance you’ll be able to take in a first team game?

JA: Yeah it’s looking like I’ll be able to see a few. I think definitely their game against Sevilla on the weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing them play live and just the atmosphere to see how everything compares. When you watch teams play on television from a thousand miles away, you don’t get the experience firsthand so being here will be tremendous.

JC: On Monday Austin Berry was named Rookie of the Year and Logan Pause won the Fair Play award. What is your reaction to having your teammates be recognized?

JA: I think it’s a tribute to how amazing our season was. Obviously we didn’t finish like we would have hoped but there’s definitely a silver lining to be found within our season. Austin is definitely a part of that – he had an amazing season as a rookie and we’re all very happy for him. It’s very deserving because he stepped in and contributed at a time where we needed him and never let go of his spot.

As far as Logan is concerned, winning the Fair Play award epitomizes him as a person and as a class player and captain. I feel like he does a lot of dirty work and it doesn’t always get noticed.  His approach to the game is tremendous and I’m very pleased that he was acknowledged for it.

JC: You’re going to be in Madrid until December 2 and then preseason begins again in mid-January… Are you feeling like you need a little rest?

JA: I feel great. My body feels great and I’m just trying to push myself and become a better professional every day.

JC: What are you doing once you get back stateside?

JA: I’m going to stop off in Chicago for a little bit and then head back home to California to see the family. As far as training is concerned, I’ll speak with Tony [Jouaux] about exactly the best way to go about staying fit but also getting some rest.

JC: Thanks for your time Jalil! We’ll check back in with you next week!

JA: Sounds good! Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone!

21 November 7:21 am

In the latest edition of Quaker Journeys, we sat down with Chicago Fire defender Austin Berry to his development from an all-sport athlete in Cincinnati, to a focus on the beautiful game at the University of Louisville to becoming the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Chicago Fire.

Be sure to check out our previous Quaker Journey with Patrick Nyarko (Part 1 and Part 2).

20 November 1:25 pm

Matt Steichen works as a Firestarter to pump up the crowd before and during halftime of Fire home games games. When he's not showing his Fire pride at Toyota Park, the St. Charles, Ill. native has been working on an amibitious project with his father Craig to visit all 32 NFL stadiums in 17 weeks.

The ultimate fan boy's dream right? 

Not so fast, the father and son team provided another twist to the project, electing to take members of the Wounded Warriors to each NFL stadium they visit. 

Check out the video below from Rick Reilly's Tour of Duty on ESPN and then give Matth and Craig a little applause...

19 November 10:54 am

When Austin Berry was officially declared the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year, the Cincinnati, Ohio native became the third player in Fire history to win the award. Previously won by Carlos Bocanegra in 2000 and Damani Ralph in 2003, the Fire now hold the most Rookie of the Year honors in MLS history.

Here's a look at the Fire’s three Rookie of the Year winners.

Carlos Bocanegra - 2000

The Fire selected Carlos Bocanegra with the fourth pick in the 2000 MLS SuperDraft after a stellar collegiate career at UCLA. In his rookie season, Bocanegra started all 27 regular season matches in which he appeared, scoring one goal and adding one assist as the Fire reached MLS Cup, where they fell 1-0 to the Kansas City Wizards. A week later, the Fire defeated the Miami Fusion 2-1, winning the club's second Open Cup trophy in just two seasons, though Bocanegra was unable to play after seeing red in the semifinal.

Following his rookie season, Bocanegra was named the 2002 and 2003 MLS Defender of the Year while also making the MLS Best XI both years. He was twice named the club’s Defender of the Year in 2000 and 2003.

After four seasons in which he appeared in 87 regular season matches, Bocanegra made the move overseas and signed with English Premier League Side Fulham FC prior to the 2004 season.

Bocanegra spent four years with the Cottagers, appearing in over 100 matches and scoring eight goals. He then went on to play in France's Ligue 1 with Rennes and Saint-Étienne before moving to storied Scottish side Rangers FC.

Bocanegra earned his first cap for the U.S. Men's National Team on Dec. 9, 2001 and has since made 109 appearances for the Yanks. A two-time FIFA World Cup veteran, Alta Loma, Calif. native captained the 2010 U.S. squad that won their group for the first time since 1930. Though he picked up a hamstring injury in the recent friendly in Russia, Bocanegra is expected to return in time to lead the U.S. into the final round of 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying on Feb. 6.

Now plying his trade with Spanish Segunda División side Racing Santander, Bocanegra recently started a multi-sport training center in southern California called CB3, which this year held its first MLS pre-combine training program that focused on soccer-specific speed and agility training. All four players that trained at CB3 prior to the MLS Combine were selected in the SuperDraft, including this year’s Rookie of the Year honoree, Austin Berry.

Damani Ralph - 2003

In 2003 the Fire selected MAC Hermann trophy finalist Damani Ralph out of the University of Connecticut with the 18th pick (second round) of the MLS SuperDraft.

In his first season with the Men in Red, the Jamaican international set the MLS Rookie record for goals in a season with 11 and tallied six assists while also picking up MLS Goal of the Year honors. The Fire would go on to win the 2003 Supporters' Shield and reach the MLS Cup Final, where the Men in Red fell 4-2 to the San Jose Earthquakes.

His sophomore season proved that it wasn’t beginner’s luck, as he posted similarly impressive stats, again scoring 11 goals and adding three assists in 26 matches.

After two seasons with the Fire, Ralph transferred to Russian Premier League Side FC Rubin Kazan, where he went on to appear in 25 games, scoring two goals in three seasons.

Ralph made his international debut for Jamaica in 2002, earning 18 caps and scoring one goal for the Reggae Boyz.

Unfortunately his career was prematurely ended by a series of knee injuries. Ralph returned to school where he finished his degree in Economics from the University of Connecticut. The 2003 MLS Rookie of the Year is now working as a sports agent, where he is able to stay connected to the game while utilizing his experiences as a player to bridge the gap between young Jamaican players who are looking to make the jump to MLS.

Austin Berry - 2012

Selected in the first round (ninth overall) of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, the former Fire PDL player joined the Men in Red after a standout collegiate career. After overcoming a broken leg in 2009, Berry led the University of Louisville to the 2010 NCAA Men’s College Cup championship match and was named 2010 BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year.  

Berry made his first game-day lineup March 24 and made his professional debut May 4 when he started against Chivas USA. Minutes after giving up a penalty kick, Berry maintained his composure and got on the end of a ball from Sebastian Grazzini, becoming just the third rookie in Fire history and the first since 1998 to score in a debut MLS appearance.

Since his debut, Berry played every minute of his 28 consecutive MLS Regular Season appearances, breaking the record of consecutive starts by a Fire rookie, previously held by Bocanegra. Berry anchored the Fire defense that held opponents to just 41 goals as the Men in Red went 17-11-6, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2009.  

A hard-nosed, blue collared player, Berry is sure to catch Jurgen Klinsmann’s eye and figure into the U.S. Men’s National Team picture in the coming years.  

15 November 4:20 pm

As was widely expected, Fire defender Austin Berry was named as a finalist for 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year Thursday along with former Louisville teammate and D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon and Vancouver Whitecaps forward Darren Mattocks.

Austin becomes the first Fire player since Chris Rolfe in 2005 to be a finalist for the award and sixth for the club all-time. Here’s a breakdown of the rookie seasons the others had…

Josh Wolff (1998) – As a member of Nike Project 40 (the precursor to Generation adidas), Wolff (right)played only part-time with the Fire appearing starting just four of his 14 appearances. It didn’t keep him from tying for the then rookie goal scoring record with Jeff Cunningham, tallying eight goals and three assists en route to helping the team to the 1998 MLS Cup double.

In a strange twist of fate, Wolff was a finalist with future Chicago Fire player Andy Williams (Columbus) and his future boss Ben Olsen (D.C. United). Olsen would go on to win the award and ironically enough Wolff serves as a player/assistant coach under him at the moment…

Carlos Bocanegra (2000) – Left on the bench as the team went 1-3-0 through their first four matches, Bocanegra was used in 27 of the team’s remaining 28 matches, helping the team to the Central Division title and a tie for the most points in MLS that season. Boca would also help the Fire to the MLS Cup final where they dropped a 1-0 result to Kansas City but would have to miss playing in that year’s U.S. Open Cup final win after being sent off in the semi-final against LA.

In the only all-defensive Rookie of the Year finalist class in MLS’ 17 year history, Bocanegra went up against former UCLA teammate Danny Califf (LA Galaxy) and Kansas City’s Nick Garcia. Though he tallied just a goal and two assists on the campaign, Bocanegra’s play outshined the others as he became the first Fire player to win the Rookie of the Year award.

Kelly Gray (2002) – The fifth overall pick for the Fire in the 2002 MLS SuperDraft, Kelly Gray played mostly as a winger during his first season in Chicago. The University of Portland product would go on to tally two goals and five assists across 27 of the team’s 28 matches to cap a strong rookie season.

Gray would go up against other finalists in midfielders Kyle Martino (Columbus) and Brad Davis (MetroStars) and though he and Martino shared the exact same number of goals and assists, the Crew midfielder likely won because he achieved his numbers in less matches played (22 to 27)…

Damani Ralph (2003) – Though he wasn’t even the first forward the Fire would select in 2003, future Jamaican international Damani Ralph set the highest bar for MLS rookies by tallying 11 goals and six assists en route to helping the Fire to the club’s first and only Supporter’s Shield as well as a trip back to MLS Cup and scoring the game-winner to clinch that year’s U.S. Open Cup.

Teaming with Ante Razov after the departure of Josh Wolff in the offseason, the pair didn’t skip a beat, combining for 25 of the team’s 53 goals and contributing 12 assists.

Ralph went up against New England attacker Pat Noonan and MetroStars holding midfielder Ricardo Clark for the award. Though Noonan had near identical stats to Ralph (10 goals, 7 assists), the Fire forward made bigger contributions in helping his side to the regular season title and deservedly earned the award.

Chris Rolfe (2005) – One of the lowest drafted Rookie of the Year finalists in league history, Rolfe picked up the load left in the wake of Damani Ralph and Ante Razov’s exit and surprised many by leading the team in goals with eight, adding five assists in the process.

The club’s future second all-time leading goal scorer’s competition would be Kansas City forward Scott Sealy (nine goals, two assists) and New England defender Michael Parkhurst. Though he didn’t have the stats, Parkhurst appeared in all of the Revolution’s 32 regular season matches and was long the consensus favorite to win the award.

Austin Berry (2012) – Since making his first Fire appearance back on May 4, defender Austin Berry would go on to play in 28 consecutive regular season matches, tallying three goals in the process. It was in that 2-1 win over Chivas where Berry showed his resolve, conceding a penalty early on only to score minutes later. With that goal, he became just the eighth player in club history to tally in his first Fire appearance.

On the defensive end, Austin formed a solid partnership in the middle of defense with Arne Friedrich, helping the Fire tie for the second best defensive record in the league.

Berry is the only defender among the finalists, joining D.C. United’s Nick DeLeon and Vancouver’s Darren Mattocks. DeLeon tallied six goals and four assists in a season where his form certainly dipped midway while some of Mattocks’ seven were highlight reel strikes but the Jamaican international disappeared in the second half of the season.

Based on play throughout the 2012 regular season, Berry should be the winner but the voters are fickle… We’ll find out on Monday.

13 November 12:21 pm

In this edition of Burning Questions we caught up with Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson. In his third season with the Men in Red, Johnson posted career-high numbers. In 31 regular season games, Sean went 16-10-5, had  five shutouts and recorded a career-low 1.24 goals against average. The Lilburn, Ga. native made 108 saves in 2012, including a career-high ten saves against the Earthquakes July 28.

Sean’s play caught the eye of U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who recently called the Fire ‘keeper in for a friendly against Russia on Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 9:00 a.m. CT (ESPN2/ESPN3/Univision Deportes). Before heading east, Sean took the time to answer our burning questions about his prowess on the dance floor, his favorite Thanksgiving dish and which teammates he’d pick for a MLS basketball tournament.

Always on the Inside: There’s another elite athlete with the same name as you, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson, who was a “Dancing With the Stars” champion. Are you a good dancer and how do you think you’d do on the show?

Sean Johnson: I’d be fantastic. My dance moves are nice. I’m pretty sure I’ve been compared to Chris Brown.

AOTI: What’s your favorite Thanksgiving food or tradition?

SJ: My mom makes a green bean casserole that is unbelievable.

AOTI: You lettered in basketball for three years at Brookwood High School. Can you still ball? Which of your current teammates would you choose if there is a MLS pickup basketball tournament?

SJ: Call me the Black Mamba. My starting five would be point guard, Corben [Bone]. Two guard, [Dan] Gargan. Three guard, we’ll go Jalil [Anibaba]. I’d play the fourth spot, and maybe Austin [Berry] could play the five. Cory [Gibbs] can be the sixth man off the bench and [Soccer Operations Coordinator] Alex Boler could be the coach.

AOTI: If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

SJ: I’d be able to fly.

AOTI: You’re one of the best table tennis and FIFA players on the Fire roster. What’s one random thing  youwant to work on so that you can best your teammates?

Jalil Anibaba: He’s No. 1 at everything.

SJ: I am THE best FIFA player on the team. In life my goal is to be No. 1 at everything I do.

AOTI: Main difference between Georgians and Chicagoans?

SJ: The pace of which they move. Chicago is so fast-paced that I feel like I’m being rushed by people in the city.

AOTI: Who plays you in the Sean Johnson movie?

SJ: Denzel Washington.

AOTI: What was the last movie you watched in theaters? And if you’re in a crowded theater, which armrests are yours?

SJ: The last movie I watched was “Argo.” And both armrests are mine.

 

07 November 2:48 pm

While the Chicago Fire is one team, the squad currently consists of 27 players each with a different origin, starting point and story of how they arrived at Toyota Park as a Fire player. As part of the club’s partnership with Quaker Oats, we present Journeys – an in-depth look at each player’s path to Chicago.

In the second part of the first edition we sat down with Ghanaian midfielder Patrick Nyarko to better understand the shape of his journey as an academics-focused part-time soccer player on the gravel fields of Kumasi, Ghana to a MAC Hermann finalist at Virginia Tech and his eventual transformation into one of the most dangerous attackers in Major League Soccer.

See Part One Here

06 November 6:13 pm

Well, the 30 Prizes in 30 Days Promotion ended this afternoon with Januario Ortega winning his 2013 Chicago Fire Season Tickets! 

Check out the names of all 30 winners below!

10/8 - Team-signed Chicago Fire secondary jersey - Dave Onion
10/9 - $50 concession stand voucher - Flavio Fernandez
10/10 - Free Parking for 2013 - Curt Nichols
10/11 - "On Field" Seats for one playoff match - Alejandro Aguilar
10/12 - Season Ticket Upgrade for 2013 - Edith Gonzalez
10/13 - Private training session with first team staff - Brian Quirk
10/14 - Valet parking for all playoff matches - Daniel Fitzgerald
10/15 - $50 gift card to Chicago Fire Fan Shop - Josh Phillips
10/16 - Flash Pass for 2013 Meet the Team event - Juan Guzman
10/17 - Full Fire kit - Larry Kearns
10/18 - Chicago Fire Garden Gnome - Jens Rehder
10/19 - Esteban Canales bobblehead - Daniel DeLeon
10/20 - Family Photo on-field - Mark Bojanowski
10/21 - Sean Johnson signed gloves - Jason Smith
10/22 - Insider Access to Practice - Andy Healy
10/23 - Insider media access to a Fire game - Vickie Polek
10/24 - Autographed cleats - Jay Clark
10/25 - Dinner with Frank Klopas - Michael Jordan
10/26 - Second Star Club tickets - Jeff Latshaw
10/27 - Chicago Fire jerseys for every ticket on account - Amie Ziton
10/28 - FieldSide table for game of choice - David McCarty
10/29 - Chicago Fire President for the Day - Heather Bowen
10/30 - Suite tickets for a game - Reuben Hussmann
10/31 -  Quaker gift pack - Matt Treter
11/1 - Team-signed ball - Eleazar Reyes
11/2 - Sparky off-site visit - Jaime Morales
11/3 - Team-signed Chicago Fire primary jersey - Gregor Ernst
11/4 - Sit next to the bench for a match - Shawn Carroll
11/5 - Podcast guest with Jeff Crandall and Eunice Kim - Piotr Bychowski
11/6 - Win your 2013 Season Tickets - Januario Ortega

Still time to renew your 2013 Chicago Fire Season Tickets... Click here or call (708) 496-6800!

05 November 12:23 pm

Following Wednesday’s disappointing knockout round exit to Houston, taking in the rest of the MLS Cup playoffs this weekend didn’t sit all the way at the top of my “want to do” list.

Being the seasoned Team Writer that I am, I decided it was a good idea to take in the four games from Friday to Sunday…

Real Salt Lake 0, Seattle Sounders 0 – Friday

With the Fire out, I have to say there are few teams in the league I would feel alright about winning MLS Cup and you know the Sounders do not fall in that category for me.

On the flip side, RSL has Fire legend C.J. Brown, defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe and even former Fire beat writer Sam Stejskal slingin’ PR in Sandy, so if someone has to win MLS Cup, I wouldn’t mind for it to be our friends from the Sawatch Front?

Playing on the Seattle Seahawks outlined pitch at CenturyLink Field Friday night, it was Nick Rimando who stood tall in net, making five big saves for RSL and even suffering a broken nose and laceration in the 67th minute after a collision with the Sounders Christian Tiffert.

The display left RSL head coach Jason Kreis to say, “I think it would have to go down as one of the best individual performances by any player that’s ever worn an RSL jersey.”

In my opinion, Rimando’s historic performance will likely go down as one of the best ever in MLS postseason play.

In the end, RSL escaped Seattle with a 0-0 draw and head back to the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium for Thursday night’s second leg.

D.C. United 1, New York Red Bulls 1 – Saturday

Knowing that one point at any time during the regular season would have had the Fire playing in this series, I had the most trouble watching this game of any during the weekend. With that said, it was nice to see D.C. switch home legs with New York after Hurricane Sandy left Red Bull Arena unplayable for the weekend.

WATCH: D.C. United 1, New York Red Bulls 1

 

Come the 33rd minute of the tie, United looked to be in good shape when Red Bull defender Connor Lade was whistled for a handball in the box, forcing referee Jair Marrufo to point to the spot. Chris Pontius’ take however wasn’t the greatest, allowing Red Bull ‘keeper Luis Robles to make one of his five saves on the night.

Despite the save, United would get on the board just after the hour mark when Chris Korb’s dangerous cross to the six left Red Bull’s Roy Miller with an attempted clear, instead roofing into the top of his own net.

In what seemed to be a comedy of errors, Red Bull would pull level with a United own goal just four minutes later. Off a corner kick from the right, defender Heath Pearce headed the ball back across goal, catching United goalkeeper Bill Hamid wrong footed before catching the ball inside his own goal and clearly across the line.

Perhaps most comical was Hamid’s insistence that he’d been fouled on the play. A replay shows Red Bull defender Markus Holgersson ducking even as United’s Dejan Jakovic is pushing him towards Hamid.

Own goals aside, the story of the match would be DC right back Andy Najar’s sending off in the 71st minute. Shown a yellow card for his foul on Joel Lindpere in the 71st minute, the Honduran international threw the ball at Maruffo, forcing the referee to show the Honduran international a second yellow and then a red card, forcing United to play a man down the final 19+ minutes of the match.

United will definitely be without Najar as they head back to Red Bull Arena for leg two and if they advance, it’s a fair bet they could lose him throughout a potential Eastern Conference Final series.

Houston Dynamo 2, Sporting Kansas City 0 – Sunday

In the surprise of the weekend, Houston came away with a dominant 2-0 victory over Sporting KC in leg one of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at BBVA Compass Stadium.

WATCH: Houston Dynamo 2, Sporting KC 0

Having defeated the Fire 2-1 on Wednesday night, the Dynamo were charged by the partisan crowd in Houston and went ahead in the 18th minute off of Adam Moffat’s wonder-volley from outside the area.

On the other side of halftime, Will Bruin would score his third goal in two playoff matches, connecting once again with former Fire striker Calen Carr to seal the 2-0 victory in the 75th minute.

It’s interesting to note that though the two sides finished even with 13 shots each, the Dynamo held just a 2-1 advantage in shots on goal, finishing both of their attempts for the win.

Houston can now go to LiveStrong Sporting Park on Wednesday, lose 1-0 and still advance to the Eastern Conference finals, knocking out the team with the second best record in the process…

San Jose Earthquakes 1, LA Galaxy 0 – Sunday

While the Dynamo didn’t look like they’d played at midweek, the LA Galaxy certainly did, looking tired a times throughout Sunday night’s home encounter.

Despite that, LA threatened just as much as San Jose but as so many other teams have this season, would fall victim to a late, late Earthquakes goal.

This time the marker would come from Honduran midfielder Victor Bernardez, who hit a low free kick underneath the jumping Omar Gonzalez and past Josh Saunders in the 94th minute, allowing the Quakes to stick with their “Goonies never say die” tagline.

The star-studded Galaxy will have a tall but not impossible order to overcome the 1-0 deficit in Wednesday’s second leg at San Jose…

Second Leg Picks
New York Red Bulls 2, D.C. United 1 (NY Advances)
Sporting KC 2, Houston Dynamo 1( HOU Advances)
Real Salt Lake 2, Seattle 1 (RSL Advances)
San Jose Earthquakes 1, LA Galaxy 1 (SJ Advances)

31 October 10:01 am

After a frustrating draw at home on the last day of the season against D.C., the Fire now have a quick turn around in Wednesday night’s Knockout Match at Toyota Park against a very experienced Houston Dynamo side (LIVE 8pm CT on ESPN2/ESPN Deportes). Anything can happen in a one-off game but, with the home crowd behind them, the Fire will be looking to build on the good performance against DC and advance to play Sporting KC this weekend. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Counter attack: the Fire's best friend

Against D.C. last week, especially in the first half, the Fire used the counter attack to perfection, creating an enormous amount of chances but failing capitalize. The Fire allowed DC to be lulled into a false sense of security by sitting back, letting them control the possession and move men forward before breaking at lightning speed if and when the Men in Red were able to turn the ball over.

WATCH: Coach's Take on Houston

 

 

Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime. As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.

If the Men in Red can counter as well as they did against D.C., Houston are going to be in trouble.

Finishing: improvement needed for the Playoffs

As I previously mentioned, the Fire had a host of chances last week against  United but only managed to put one in the back of the net. In the playoffs, not taking your chances is a recipe for disaster and the Fire will need to make the most of the ones they get tonight.

MacDonald was the main culprit against D.C. and he will certainly be looking to get on the score sheet in his first playoff game. MacDonald is his own biggest critic and I am sure he's been working doubly hard in training since Saturday. He is the kind of player who could go on a scoring run and getting a goal against Houston could start it.

Assistant coach Mike Makovich put it well in his pre-match interview, stating that he "would be worried" if the Fire weren't creating chances. In the Playoffs, a certain amount of luck is needed, but if the Fire create as many openings as they did against D.C., they should be fine.

Limiting defensive mistakes: no needless fouls around the box

Houston are the masters of the dead ball and the less chances the Fire give Brad Davis and co. to put the ball in the box, the better. The Dynamo are extremely good in the air and are also a very intelligent team, constantly looking for fouls in the final third.

Houston coach Dom Kinnear is also famous for his attempts to influence referees, something that he will surely be trying to do on Wednesday night. The Fire must try and not give referee Baldomero Toledo anything to think about, because the more needless fouls the team gives up, the more likely he will start hearing it from the Houston bench.

Houston's size, with giants like Macoumba Kandji and Will Bruin are tough to handle. Aside from the massively experienced Arne Friedrich and playoff experienced Segares, the Fire's other three likely defensive starters, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba and Sean Johnson all will be making their MLS Playoff debuts so putting as little pressure on them as possible will be helpful.

WATCH:  Players Preview Houston

 

Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime.

As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.

Kofi Sarkodie: Potential weak link for the Dynamo

For all the talk of Houston's playoff experience, one player who will be taking his postseason bow for the Dynamo is right-back Kofi Sarkodie.

Sarkodie only started seven games this season for the Dynamo and though he is not a rookie, he did not see any action during the teams run to the 2011 MLS Cup. I expect the Fire to try and test out Sarkodie as often as possible Wednesday night.

Flaco Fernandez had an improved performance against D.C. last weekend and if he can continue to get forward and combine with the attackers and left back Segares on Sarkodie's side of the field, it may cause the youngster problems.

In Houston's last meaningful game against the Philadelphia Union on October 20, the only Philly goal came on a cross from Sarkodie's side. He stood off the ball and allowed the cross to be played into the box for Jack McInerney to score. Another mistake like that could cost the Dynamo on Wednesday night.

Prediction: In a very tight and tense match, the Fire come out 2-1 winners with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Rookie of the Year Award runaway, Austin Berry.