All fired up over Blanco

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Controversial characters like Cuauhtemoc Blanco really don't care too much if people like them. That is just as well because there will be precious little goodwill extended to the Chicago Fire's Mexican maestro in Washington, D.C., next week.

Blanco's antics during the Fire's 1-0 victory over D.C. United in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal on Thursday night were occasionally comical, often shamelessly theatrical, undeniably entertaining and ultimately effective.

But United see it somewhat differently. They think Blanco is a cheat. A diver. A con man who fools referees into giving him calls and gets protected because he is one of the most high-profile players in Major League Soccer.

On a brisk and breezy night in Illinois, Blanco got the blood of the Supporters' Shield winners boiling with frustration and resentment. Presumably, that was his intention.

D.C. defender Marc Burch pulled no punches when asked for his views on Blanco's approach to the game.

"A lot of the refs are pulling for him and he has mastered the art of diving," Burch said. "He gets one little clip and he doesn't even think about staying up. He goes down every time. He is working the refs all the time."

Even the most loyal follower must admit that Blanco spends a healthy proportion of each match on his fanny. The routine goes something like this: challenge, fall, roll, gesticulate wildly at referee, clutch limb as if mortally wounded, argue with official or opposing player, climb gradually and gingerly to feet – get on with the game.

Chicago fans love it and most neutrals cannot help but hold a soft spot for his impish behavior and sublime skills – the magnificent chips, flicks and shimmies – that have not dimmed in quality even past his 34th birthday.

Blanco has a big-game mentality, but he will be hunted as big game in the nation's capital next Thursday when MLS's most successful franchise will have revenge lodged firmly in its mind's eye.

"It is far from over," Burch said. "We are going back to our place and we are really good there. We are the best team in the league. We don't back down. We don't shy away from tackles. We may play the best football, but I want us to be the toughest team out there as well.

"Ben (Olsen, the D.C. United winger) said it best. He said that, 'Usually, you go out there and enjoy the game, but sometimes you go out there and fight and bite and scratch and do whatever you have to do to get out of a game.' "

Strong words indeed, but hating Blanco is nothing new. At different times, that has been a favorite pastime of American soccer fans angered by his instigation of ill-will in matches between the U.S. and Mexico.

The real problem is that Blanco is too clever for the referees. MLS officiating standards are not climbing in line with the standard of play, and many refs find it difficult to make the correct judgment call on Blanco's frequent tumbles to the turf.

The problem is decisions involving him are rarely clear cut. In most instances, there is contact between him and the defender. Deciphering whether the contact was initiated by Blanco himself or was strong enough to warrant the acrobatics that followed or was unfair or even non-existent has to be finalized by the referee in a split second.

If Blanco does get awarded more calls than he should, then the issue may rest with a lack of experienced refs equipped to handle the situation rather than any pandering to celebrity.

Chicago captain Chris Armas defended Blanco.

"I see him in training every day and I play right behind him," Armas said. "People would be surprised by how honest he actually is. You always notice when he is going down, but a lot of times he is getting contact. He has a great knack for using his body and putting it between the ball and the defender.

"If he goes down a little easy, I still think he gets a lot more contact than people realize and people don't comment on how many times he fights through and stays on his feet. You know what? It is up to the referees to decide that."

In any case, Blanco's performance, Chris Rolfe's goal and Chicago's victory has set up a potentially explosive and keenly anticipated second leg after kicking off the playoffs in passionate and exciting fashion. Expect D.C. United, with wounded pride and a point to prove, to fight the Fire with fire.