Road trip kicks off in Chicago

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There are plenty of reasons the New England Revolution’s confidence is sky-high as the club departs for a critical two-game road trip this week, which begins with Wednesday night’s showdown against the rival Chicago Fire.

First and foremost, the Revs (6-9-3, 21 pts.) are unbeaten in their last eight games (6-0-2) in all competitions – including a 3-0-1 mark in league play – and picked up their sixth shutout in that stretch with a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo this past weekend. The recent run of form has pulled the Revolution from the depths of the Eastern Conference back into the playoff race, as the club now sits five points back of the final postseason spot with still 12 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.

The Revs will also have a slight mental edge heading into Toyota Park, having claimed a 1-0 road victory over the Fire (5-5-6, 21 pts.) in a SuperLiga group stage match on July 17. That result came just three weeks after the Fire left Gillette Stadium with a 1-0 win in a league match on June 27.

While their recent triumph in the Windy City will no doubt provide the Revs with a psychological boost – especially considering their dismal 0-6-1 record in their last seven games at Toyota Park prior to that victory – central defender Darrius Barnescautioned against overconfidence.

“You can never go in thinking [about the previous result],” he said. “It’s always going to be a different game. Each game has a life of its own, so we know going in there that we’re going to face a new team. We’re not really [concerned with] the SuperLiga victory. That was a different task at hand. We have a bigger task coming up this Wednesday.”

Barnes and the Revs will indeed be facing a completely different Chicago side than the one they faced last month. Literally minutes after the Revolution defeated the Fire in mid-July, Mexican star Nery Castillo was announced as Chicago’s newest Designated Player. The Fire has since added a second Designated Player, Freddie Ljungberg, via trade with Seattle Sounders FC, while the club also re-signed stalwart left back Gonzalo Segares.

All three will be available for selection on Wednesday night, with Ljungberg and Segares expected to start and Castillo more likely to be available off the bench, although Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos wouldn’t rule out starting the former Manchester City midfielder. Gritty central midfielder John Thorrington (L quad strain) could also make his return to the bench after a long layoff, while speedy winger Patrick Nyarko (headaches) is not expected to be available.

“They’ve added defensively and attacking-wise, so I’m sure we’ll see a different Chicago this time around,” said head coach Steve Nicol. “Hopefully we can continue to keep things tight and take our chances when they come.”

That’s precisely what the Revs did last weekend in their shutout win over the Dynamo, limiting their opponent to just two shots on target while finding the back of the net with one of their three attempts. New England has conceded just two goals during the current eight-game unbeaten run, but has scored only nine goals in that stretch. The addition of Serbian forward Ilija Stolica – who scored his first MLS goal in his first start against Houston – should help in the attacking department, while the Revs simply need to keep doing what they’ve been doing defensively.

“That’s one thing we’ve done well in the last couple games is really frustrate teams, really slow down their offense and really make it hard for them to play,” said goalkeeper Matt Reis, who has been between the pipes for seven of the eight games during the unbeaten run. “I guess you could say that’s our style of play right now is really grinding out wins.”

Perhaps most remarkable about the Revolution’s current run is the consistent results have been achieved by a wholly inconsistent lineup. Against Houston, the Serbian duo of Stolica and Marko Perovic started up top for the first time together, while left-footed utility player Chris Tierney filled in at right back for the injured Kevin Alston (L hamstring strain). Unbelievably, the Revs have not used the same starting lineup twice during their current unbeaten run – that’s eight unique lineups in eight games.

“One of the strengths of this team is that we’ve been able to adapt and we’ve been able to plug in different players at different times and they’ve done well,” said Reis. “I’m sure it would be nice to get some consistency and actually have 18 healthy players for a game, and I think we’re getting there.”

Alston returned to training on Monday and is expected to travel with the Revs as they depart for this two-game swing which will take them directly from Chicago to Kansas City, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be ready to start against the Fire on Wednesday night. Should he return to his customary right back role, it would likely push Tierney to left midfield in place of Khano Smith.

The Revs are currently tied on points with the Fire and they sit one point ahead of the Kansas City Wizards (5-9-5, 20 pts.), so this week’s matches could go a long way in determining whether the Revolution can mount a serious playoff push. But regardless of the opponent, the Revs are primarily focused on continuing their own formula for success – ruthless defending and timely goals.

“We just have to worry about us; we don’t have to really focus in on [Chicago],” said Barnes. “We know they have dangerous players, but if we can go in there and just continue to build on what we have going right now, I think we’ll be alright.”