Jonny Raj

PDL Playoff Primer

After a 2010 season which saw the Chicago Fire PDL side miss the Premier Development League playoffs for the first time, the team returns to the postseason Tuesday night when they’ll welcome Forest City London back to the Toyota Park Turf Field for the second time in eight days.

In a match that went a long way in determining Great Lakes Division playoff positioning, the Fire used goals from Paulo Vaz, Chris Estridge and Andrew Ribeiro to run out 3-0 winners in the muggy Chicago heat.

Despite the lopsided nature of the result, the Fire PDL are expecting a much stronger challenge from the Canadian side Tuesday night according to team captain and New Zealand youth international Jonny Raj.

“They’ll be coming at us,” he said. “Their coach (Martin Painter) was very upset after the game last week. We were told they went downtown the night before which they shouldn’t have done. This is do or die, its knockout stage, we know they’ll be hungry for a result with a 3-0 loss to us coming so close to this game. They have to drive seven hours all the way back here and they want revenge.”

Game saw more than just a result…

The score line wasn’t the only story that came out of last Monday’s game at Toyota Park as a post-match incident involving Raj and an unidentified London player saw the Fire captain shown a red card following the final whistle. After earning a yellow card late in the first half, the Fairfield University defender who was sitting on four yellow cards was substituted from the match in the 85th minute in order to ensure his availability for Wednesday’s match against the Michigan Bucks.

The Fire PDL dropped a 1-0 result in that match, giving the Detroit-based side its second straight Great Lakes Division title and guaranteeing themselves a second place finish and Tuesday’s rematch with London.

“It’s a learning experience for me. Unfortunately it cost the team in the game against Michigan, missing that game, I let the team down big time. I’ve learned and it won’t happen again.”

Raj’s absence was felt against Michigan according to PDL head coach Mark Spooner.

“Jonny’s our captain and has been our rock in the back all season,” he said. “With the Bucks being such a high powered attacking team, that game was maybe the worst one for him to miss and we paid for it. We’ve moved on though and he’s learned he needs to keep his cool despite what anyone says to you. We’re glad he’ll be back in the lineup for us in what will be a very tough game on Tuesday night.”

Knockout Experience

While the playoffs mean a quasi new season, the Fire PDL have already had experience this year in a knockout situation, having competed in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this year. Advancing to the third round of the tournament, where they were eventually defeated 3-0 by Major League Soccer’s Sporting KC, the team became accustomed to the nature of a knockout tournament and Raj expects it to help them again starting Tuesday night.

It definitely helped playing Kansas City and the Madison 56ers which is full of players much more senior than us here. The little things we’ve learned from the pros, playing guys like Teal Bunbury, we see and learn things we can improve on. Playing those games with everything on the line, when you come to these things are easier. The U.S. Open Cup taught us stuff we can take back to our colleges and take into the playoffs this year.”

Section 8 Support

In previous years, very few fans ever showed up for Fire PDL games but that’s changed in 2011 as Section 8 Chicago has made an effort to show a presence and create atmosphere similar to what they provide and the club’s first team games. According to Raj, the vibrant support has been a big boost for the team.

Section 8 has been absolutely brilliant coming out with their drums. When the crowd gets behind you it gives that extra five percent that means so much more at game time. You hear your name getting cheered, you hear them singing, the drums and its all for you. It helps us and brings the other team down cause it just plays with their heads. They’ve been brilliant for us and hopefully Tuesday when they come out will give them a win.“

History

If nothing else, history will be on the Fire PDL's side tonight as they have never lost to FC London, going 4-0-2 agains tthe Ontario-based side over six matches since 2009. The two teams met at the same point in 2009, with the Fire winning 1-0 on their way to that year's PDL North American final.

Tuesday night’s playoff game with Forest City London kicks off at 6pm on the Toyota Park Turf Field. Best of all, admission is FREE.

Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.