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Soccer

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MLS Cup Preview

Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl sets the stage for the Fire and United

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Posted: Friday October 23, 1998 05:35 PM

  United's Roy Lassiter scored two goals in Game 3 of the Eastern finals on Wednesday Mike Powell/Allsport

LOS ANGELES— Well, here we are in California, only half a continent away from the nearest hometown of the two teams—the Chicago Fire and the two-time defending champion D.C. United—that will be playing in Sunday's MLS Cup. I'm already imagining what a half-full Rose Bowl will look like on national TV, as opposed to what would surely be a sold-out RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. It's a simple question: If MLS cares so much about attendance, why doesn't it treat its championship like the NBA Finals instead of the Super Bowl and award home-field advantage to the team with the better regular-season record?

"It would have been a mess," MLS commisioner Doug Logan told me Thursday over coffee. (One great thing about MLS: its comissioner is by far the most accessible in all of sports. When I called Logan's office two weeks ago, for example, the commish himself answered the phone.)

"For one thing, we would have had to print four sets of tickets for four possible cities," Logan said. "And if the game had been held in D.C. on such short notice there's no way we could have handled the walk-up crowd. There aren't enough ticket booths there. The Redskins never needed them when they played there because they always sold out. We had a great walkup crowd on Wednesday at RFK for the D.C.-Columbus [Eastern Conference final] game, but we didn't get the last person into the stadium until three minutes into the second half."

Hmmmm. Seems like pretty sketchy reasoning to me. Still, Logan said he expects to draw 45,000 on Sunday, so we'll see how many fans actually show up to watch two teams they care very little about. Then again, professional football is a rare commodity around L.A. these days (there's still no NFL team here, if you can believe it), so you never know.

Here's a comparison of the two teams by position and, of course, a prediction for the game:

FORWARDS: United's Roy Lassiter has finally started scoring again (two goals in Game 3 of the Eastern finals on Wednesday), after going AWOL in the opening round of the playoffs. Lassiter's speed and partner Jaime Moreno 's smarts—not to mention their big-game experience—give D.C. the edge over Chicago's Ante Razov and rookie Josh Wolff , though not by much. Give Razov and Wolff a couple of years, and they could be the starting forward tandem on the U.S. national team. (You heard it here first.)

Advantage: D.C.

MIDFIELDERS: It's not even close. United's Marco Etcheverry , the league's likely MVP, will be the man of the match—so long as the referee doesn't let the Fire's defense get away with too much physical play. Etcheverry's playmaking counterpart for the Fire, Peter Nowak , is solid but nowhere near as creative. United's supporting midfielders ( John Harkes , Ben Olsen and Richie Williams ) work better together on the attack than the Fire's Chris Armas , Jesse Marsch and Jerzy Podbrozny.

Advantage: D.C.
Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton was the league's biggest surprise this season Aubrey Washington/Allsport 

DEFENDERS: The reason Chicago is here (remember, this is an expansion team) is its defense. C.J. Brown was a great young American find, Francis Okaroh is a steady veteran and Lubos Kubik was the MLS defender of the year. They're playing so well together lately that they compare favorably with D.C.'s superb back line ( Carlos Llamosa and national-teamers Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos )

Advantage: Even.

GOALKEEPERS: The Fire's Zach Thornton was the league's biggest American surprise this season, beating out Mexican international Jorge Campos for the job and winning the goalkeeper of the year award. United's Tom Presthus has played O.K. since taking over the starting job in the playoffs, but he looked shaky at times coming off his line in the conference finals. Still, it may not matter much. Presthus will be D.C.'s third starting goalkeeper in the last three MLS Cups.

Advantage: Chicago.

TACTICS: Fire coach Bob Bradley : Please, PLEASE, if you're reading this ... Don't go defensive on us. The biggest complaint about Chicago this year has been that the team is boring to watch, and sadly this has been true on many occasions. D.C.'s Bruce Arena , on the other hand, favors attacking soccer, and he's proven himself in two MLS Cups already.

Advantage: D.C.

PREDICTION: Confirming my fears, Chicago will come out in a defensive shell and dare D.C. to send too many players forward. The strategy will work for most of the game until D.C. finally rams it through. The crystal ball says United, 2-0 , both goals coming in the last 20 minutes.  

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