FOXBOROUGH -- The Revolution have turned late-season rallies into a combination of an art form and a habit. Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston scored in a three-minute period early in the second half as the Revolution edged the Chicago Fire, 2-1, to qualify for the MLS playoffs for the third successive season.
The Revolution (8-13-9) escaped the Eastern Conference cellar by winning the season series against the Fire (8-13-9) and will play host to Columbus at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the opener of a two-game, total-goals playoff series.
The final match of the regular season went the way of many Revolution matches this season. Dempsey volleyed a short-range goal in the 55th minute, but the Fire tied the score on a Nate Jaqua header a minute later. This presented a demoralizing situation for the Revolution, since the Fire required just a tie to advance. But Jose Cancela's inspiration and skill quickly restored the Revolution advantage, as he chipped a pass for Ralston to convert in the 58th minute.
"I wish we could do it another way rather than going down to the last day of the season," Ralston said. "I was a little worried when they scored, because we were on such a high after taking the lead, and there have been a few times this season where we blew the lead. But we never gave up, we kept fighting.
"And Pepe [Cancela] played a great ball to me. I had been making that run before and I scored [a goal that was disallowed for offside in the 50th minute]. I was trying to time it and it was windy, so I wasn't sure if I was going to head it. I just tried to get my foot on it and put it in the far corner."
Ralston also had the deciding score as the Revolution qualified for the playoffs last year, a penalty kick in a 1-0 overtime victory over D.C. United.
This was a rough match, and the tone was set with three hard tackles in the opening seconds, the last by Ralston on Andy Herron, who remained down until the ball was played out by the Revolution to allow him to recover. Herron went down hard again after an Avery John tackle near the goal area in the 19th minute, this time remaining out for more than two minutes.
The Revolution started in a 4-4-2 formation, then switched to a 3-5-2 in the second half, and protected the advantage with a 4-5-1, leaving Taylor Twellman as lone striker.
"I was just trying to hold the ball and relieve the pressure for a couple of seconds," Twellman said. "Now, we have a chance to do well at home against Columbus. We are the underdogs but every team knows that we are going to give them a hard battle. Columbus has been consistent, they don't give up many chances, and when they get chances they take them."
Andy Williams kept the Revolution midfield off balance with skill and ability to shield the ball for much of the contest. But neither team settled into a passing game. The Revolution's persistence resulted in some close calls and well-taken free kicks by Cancela in the first half. Twellman poked a shot with the outside of his right foot off a Marshall Leonard feed, the ball deflected by goalkeeper Henry Ring after referee Ricardo Valenzuela allowed play to continue after a foul in the 43d minute.
Cancela set up the first goal, winning a corner, then sending the kick to Jay Heaps. The ball deflected to Dempsey, who volleyed off a defender from the edge of the goal area. A minute later, a Williams corner was headed in by Jaqua. Cancela remained active and creative, and was fouled by C.J. Brown, who was cautioned, in the 57th minute. Cancela went into position to collect a clearance, then found Ralston running into the left side of the penalty area for the go-ahead goal.
Williams was replaced by Craig Capano in the 80th minute, a move that might have cost the Fire since he was unavailable when Kelly Gray chested the ball in the penalty arc and earned a free kick as Valenzuela whistled a foul on Shalrie Joseph in the first minute of injury time. But Damani Ralph sent the free kick wide.