FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – One more win and the New England Revolution would advance to their third straight MLS championship game. As usual, the Chicago Fire stand in their way.

“We know each other inside out,” New England coach Steve Nicol said. “The more you come up against each other, the tougher it gets because we know a great deal about them and they know a great deal about us.”

They’ll met again in the Eastern Conference final on Thursday night, a rematch of the 2005 game won by the Revolution 1-0. In 2006, another victory over Chicago in the conference semifinals kept the Revolution’s season alive and they went on to the finals. But they’ve never won the championship, losing the last two MLS Cup games to Los Angeles and then Houston.

They’re 0-3 in the last five title games.

Steve Ralston, the MLS rookie of the year in 1996, has been with the Revolution since the league’s first season and has plenty of experience against the Fire.

“There’s a healthy respect for each other,” he said. “When you play each other as much as we do there’s going to be a rivalry there.”

Chris Armas has been with Chicago in each of its nine seasons.

“We know them very well,” he said of the Revolution. “There are no secrets on their end.” New England does have to adjust to some key changes on the Fire. Juan Carlos Osorio was hired July 9 to replace fired coach Dave Sarachan. On July 29, Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco joined the club.

“He filled a void that we had in the middle of the field: a pure attacker, great ideas, always wanting the ball,” Armas said.

Since Osorio and Blanco have been together, Chicago is 7-2-7 after going 4-8-4. “Since Osorio came in, they’ve changed their tactics,” Nicol said.

The Revolution were 1-2 against the Fire this season. The last meeting was on Oct. 6, when Chicago won 2-1 at home. That was the only game between the teams in which key players Blanco and Wilman Conde both played for the Fire.

“You can watch games and tapes and videos all you like,” Nicol said, “but you can’t beat actually being there and facing what you might face later on in the year.”

The Revolution had a better regular season with a 14-8-8 record. The Fire were 10-10-10 and didn’t make the playoffs until their last game but are 4-0-6 in their last 10, including the playoffs. “We have been in many tough matches the last two months,” Osorio said. “It has helped especially our young players to become more mature and more capable of dealing with those huge games.”

That should help 24-year-old Chris Rolfe, who had two of the Fire’s three goals in the conference semifinal two-game series against D.C. United.

“Over the past few weeks they’ve been playing as good as anybody,” Ralston said.

The Revolution have longtime contributors Ralston, Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan and goalkeeper Matt Reis and have been in the last five conference championship games.

“We know that a lot of things can change during the game,” Nicol said, but “we’ve kind of faced almost every sort of possible problem in those five games.”

The Revolution have the advantage of playing at home. In 10 playoff games against the Fire, they’re 5-0 there while Chicago is 5-0 on its field.

Nicol wants his team to start aggressively, and Ralston remembers some especially physical games against Chicago.

“We’ve all moved on from that,” Ralston said.

Next stop for one of the teams is the MLS title game in Washington, D.C. against the winner of Saturday night’s Western Conference final at Houston between the Dynamo and the Kansas City Wizards.

First, Chicago and New England must play just five days after their last games.

“At this point of the season, we just want to get it going,” Ralston said. “It’s hard waiting around all week for a game of this importance.”

AP-ES-11-07-07 1810EST

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