CHICAGO – Chicago Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch has enjoyed watching Cuauhtemoc Blanco the past three seasons and doesn’t want the “circus” to end.
Real Salt Lake would love nothing more than to pull down the tent.
With a spot in the MLS Cup up for grabs, there is certainly no shortage of story lines as these teams prepare to meet in the Eastern Conference finals Saturday in Bridgeview, Ill.
There’s Blanco’s pending departure and the Fire’s desire to keep the “circus,” as Busch put it, surrounding the Mexican superstar going a little longer. There are reports that Real owner Dave Checketts is negotiating to sell nearly half the franchise to local real estate developer Dell Loy Hansen. Then there’s both teams trying to break through to the MLS Cup after falling in the conference finals a year ago, with the Fire going down in the East and Real losing in the West.
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“We’ve been very, very up and down and at times maddeningly inconsistent,” Real coach Jason Kreis said. “But what we have shown this year is when we’re good, we’re very, very good.”
And, after finishing fifth in the Western Conference, Real looked sharp in knocking off Columbus in the Eastern semifinals, scoring the final three goals in a 3-2 victory Nov. 5 to take a series win on a 4-2 aggregate.
Now, they’ll try to take out Chicago, the runner-up to Columbus in the East during the regular season with 45 points and a loser in the conference finals the past two years.
This time, the Fire team is looking to advance to the MLS Cup and delay the departure of Blanco, who signed with Chicago in 2007 and is headed back to Mexico to play for Veracruz.
“Everywhere we go, people want to come out and see him,” Busch said. “They don’t really want to see us, but they want to see him. It’s pretty cool to see that circus that follows him around. He’s been great in the locker room with the guys, just trying to be one of the guys. Obviously, on the field, his vision that he brings, not many people can do that. Obviously, that helps us in the game situations. I think all in all, it’s been a good situation for the Chicago Fire to have over the last two years.”
Blanco didn’t play in the two regular-season games against Salt Lake. Even so, the Fire got the better of Real.
Chicago pulled out a 1-0 win at home on Aug. 1, and played to a 1-1 tie at Salt Lake on Sept. 12. Now, Real will have to contend with Blanco, who has come on strong after being limited by nagging injuries.
The veteran midfielder was at his best in a 2-0 victory over New England last week that gave Chicago the series win, scoring one goal and setting up another, to lead the Fire back to the conference finals for the third consecutive year.
“They have a good midfield group, and not only Blanco, but we’re going to have our eyes on all the attacking options,” Real midfielder Andy Williams said.
Starting with Blanco.
“He’s a player that sees passes and can make plays that the majority of players can’t, to be completely honest,” Kreis said. “You’ve got to be aware when he’s on the ball, what else is happening. What are the other runs? Who’s getting in behind you? He can see those passes and complete those passes a lot of people can’t.”