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MLS preview: D.C. United at Chicago Fire

Toronto FC v Chicago Fire

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 04: Chris Rolfe #18 of the Chicago Fire controls the ball past Ryan Johnson #9 of Toronto FC during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 4, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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This is a match between teams currently occupying second place and third place – and desperate to stay there.

To fall below top-three status could mean an additional game, perhaps additional travel, an additional chance to bomb out of the playoffs and, generally, an extra-tough go in the “second season.”

For sure, finishing top three is where it’s at in MLS.

Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET, Toyota Park, NBCSN

(Official league preview is here)

On Chicago:

  • Hard to say which team shows up: meek, slumpy-shouldered Chicago, which fell at home recently to Philadelphia and was blanked two weeks later at New England? Or brawny-shouldered Chicago, which laid out such a nice, tactical plan and then executed with steely resolution in between during a fetching win at New York?

(MORE: Analysis of Chicago’s win over New York)

  • Part of the issue is finding Chris Rolfe (pictured), the team’s slasher-dasher attacker, who usually plays in the “hole” behind striker Sherjill MacDonald. Teams know that limiting Rolfe’s time on the ball – or forcing him to gain possession in deeper areas, further away from goal – is the key to undoing Chicago’s offense.
  • What Rolfe says about that: “It’s a little bit more of a challenge finding the ball. I think it makes me work a little bit harder to find spots and then, on top of that, the timing with the passes coming into me is going to have to be at the right moment. It makes it a little bit difficult for all of us when a guy is marking me like that, but on a grass field with more space, it’s less noticeable.”
  • Center back Austin Berry is more or less everyone’s choice as Rookie of the Year. He’s sure mine. (And by the way, his central partner, German veteran Arne Friedrich is having a dandy year, too.)

(MORE: Austin Berry closing in on honor)

On D.C. United:

  • United clinched its playoff spot last week in a 3-2 win, the quintessential “thriller,” with reservist Lewis Neal nailing the late game-winner in a crackerjack, back-and-forth contest at RFK. Great stuff. (A big, loud, old-school crowd at RFK didn’t hurt one little bit.)
  • What Olsen said about it all: “It was like the old days. I don’t like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt like the good old days here. I’d like to keep that around. We’re excited to continue to move on and have more moments like this. We’re still in the hunt moving forward next week. There’s still work to be done.”
  • It came, once again, without top man Dwayne De Rosario. But …

(MORE: Is Dwayne De Rosario close to a return?)

  • See, the thing is, if United falls in this one, chances go up dramatically that they would face Eastern champion Sporting Kansas City in the second-round. And that’s assuming they survive the 4th-vs.-5th elimination match. So, you can see why they so desperately want a result Saturday in Illinois, where a tie will do.
  • Keep an eye on right back Andy Najar; if United keeps him there – he’s a natural midfielder – he may become the league’s top man at the position. That’s assuming he stays in MLS, and that’s a toss-up. The kid is good.

Bottom line:

D.C. United at home looks like a bunch you don’t want your team meeting in the playoffs. D.C. United on the road? Meh. What says “Meh” like 5-9-2, minus-10 goal difference? Chicago finds a way in this one, leaving United to watch the scores elsewhere.