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Outcome seemed inevitable from the outset

CHICAGO -- They sensed it after 20 minutes. They knew it by halftime, when the scoreboard said 0-0 but the Revolution had been run out of Soldier Field and halfway up to Wrigleyville. "You got away with it for 45 minutes," coach Steve Nicol told his players midway through last night's Eastern Conference final against the Fire.

But the visitors knew they couldn't be outclassed all evening and still beat the best team in Major League Soccer. They may have held out for 101 minutes, until Chris Armas finally poked one past keeper Adin Brown. But the Revolution weren't going to win. Not without some old-fashioned Cook County ballot stuffing.

"We didn't play well tonight," captain Steve Ralston conceded after the Fire had seared his teammates, 1-0, to advance to next weekend's MLS Cup final against the winner of tonight's Western final between San Jose and Kansas City. "They were the better team tonight. They might not be the better team every night, but they were better tonight."

The scoresheet told the tale -- Chicago had a 20-7 edge in shots, 9-2 on goal and a massive 14-3 advantage in corner kicks. The Fire attacked from the opening whistle and kept coming, five, six, seven men at a time. "They were making us track back," said forward Pat Noonan, "and that wasn't giving us a chance to create much."

There was a header in the 12th minute by forward Dario Fabbro that went wide right. There was a bid by Noonan in the 46th that missed left. Noonan coulda-shoulda gotten a penalty kick in the first half, but didn't. Everything else belonged to the hosts, who are making their third trip to the Cup final in six years.

"We didn't come up tonight," said Nicol, whose club took its first loss since Sept. 7. "As far as effort and commitment, it was huge. But we just didn't play."

The Revolution had hammered Chicago twice in Foxborough by 3-0 and 5-1 counts during the regular season, but the Fire hadn't lost here in their last 10 outings and were 12-1-1 all-time in home playoff matches. If they had to run all night to win this one, they would have.

So when Armas finally scored the winner, the visitors shook hands graciously and headed for the showers. "Can't go any further without winning it," shrugged midfielder Brian Kamler. "I don't think we played our best by any means, but we sure fought hard. At the end of the day, we just came up a little short."

For a team that was all but pronounced dead at the end of July, the Revolution had a longer life than all but their most fervent followers might have imagined. "They should be walking out of here with their heads up and their chests out for what they did this season," Nicol declared.

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