Jesse Marsch and Evan Whitfield know a thing or two about the MLS Cup playoffs.
The former Chicago Fire players know that even the last team into the playoffs can win it all, and it has.
That's important for Fire fans to remember, considering the team enters Wednesday's knockout game at Toyota Park (8 p.m., ESPN2) with little momentum, having gone 1-3-1 in its last five games.
The Fire (17-11-6, 57 points) finished No. 4 in the Eastern Conference and will host No. 5 Houston (14-9-11, 53).
"They need to kind of experience a bout of selective amnesia for the last five games of the season and somehow try to rediscover the form they had in the previous eight games," said Whitfield, a former Fire first-round draft pick and now the analyst on the club's local television broadcasts.
"They've got to find a way to get some momentum going," added Marsch, now the Montreal Impact coach.
Whitfield pointed out that teams have been working hard lately to stop Fire forward Chris Rolfe, with some success.
"Rolfe has been kind of shut down," Whitfield said. "That's a huge thing."
In the meantime it's up to the players around Rolfe to step up and take advantage of the extra space they see when teams focus on Rolfe.
Sherjill MacDonald needs to increase his efforts to hold the ball to give his teammates a chance to get upfield. Alvaro Fernandez also needs to be more difficult to mark. Both players are the team's Designated Players, and this is the time when DPs are needed most.
Marsch sees a team with good balance, Sean Johnson can be "a big-game goalkeeper," and a solid back line that has been consistent.
"They have a good enough team," Marsch said. "You need to limit mistakes in the back and limit mistakes on set pieces."
With a win Wednesday (a tie after 90 minutes will be broken with 30 minutes of extra time, followed by penalty kicks if necessary) the Fire would host top seed Sporting Kansas City at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Toyota Park in the first of a two-game aggregate series.
"The Fire have demonstrated the ability to win," Whitfield said. "They've won a ton of games. They have players who can make big plays."
Now they just have to go back to making those big plays. If they don't do it Wednesday, they won't get another chance this season.
The Fire announced that by a media vote Chris Rolfe won the team MVP award and Arne Friedrich is the team's Defender of the Year.
Both are deserving, but neither got my vote. Rolfe was the team's leading scorer, but I voted for midfielder Patrick Nyarko, who played in more games than Rolfe, led the team in assists and was a force because of his speed, technical ability and willingness to defend.
Friedrich, the German international brought in this season, has been a leader at center back and shown a great willingness to go forward into the attack, but I thought Gonzalo Segares had the better season because of his steadiness and consistency on the left side.
As for the main MLS awards, the obvious MVP pick is San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, who tied a league record with his 27 goals for a club that won the Supporters' Shield.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi got my No. 2 vote for MVP because he led the league in assists for the top team in the Eastern Conference.
The Fire's Austin Berry got my vote for Rookie of the Year, followed by D.C. United's Nick DeLeon.
For Coach of the Year, I reversed the teams, going with Sporting's Peter Vermes No. 1 and San Jose's Frank Yallop No. 2. Both had great seasons, but I see Vermes as the better innovator with a team that is just more fun to watch. D.C. United's Ben Olsen also had a strong season.
Matt Besler of SKC and Seattle's Jeff Parke earned the top two votes, respectively, for Defender of the Year. Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando and Seattle's Michael Gspurning were the top two goalkeepers, in that order.
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