It's hard to believe it's almost over.
For soccer fans, this World Cup has been like bathing in gold for a month. Despite the many controversies, the tournament has lived up to its hype. Stars (Diego Forlan, Robert Vittek) have been made, goats (Robert Green, the entire French team, many of the referees) revealed, controversies unfurled.
It's all made for great theater.
Hope for an early goal or two in Sunday's championship game (1:30 p.m., ABC 7), which is likely to start out like Wednesday's semifinal between Spain and Germany, with both teams determined not to make a mistake.
Mistakes are bad for the teams, good for fans who want to see a wide-open game. An early goal would force one team to come out of its shell and could lead to still more scoring chances.
Both teams have proven they can play fun, attacking soccer and score a few goals. It's a rebuke to the dull, counterattacking tactics Dunga tried to institute with Brazil. Hopefully, now that Dunga is gone Samba Soccer will return when the Brazilians come to New Jersey next month for a friendly against the United States.
So here's a farewell prediction for Sunday's final: Spain 2, Netherlands 1.
Top to bottom, the Spanish lineup reads like a who's who of the world's best. Stopping high-scoring Germany in its tracks was an impressive feat for the Spanish. They can do the same to the Dutch.
Back home: Just in time for the hot weather, the Fire's schedule gets very busy.
Thursday the Fire hosts defending MLS Cup champion Real Salt Lake (8:30 p.m. ESPN2), one of the hottest teams in the league.
"We're excited for the challenge," Fire midfielder Logan Pause said after Wednesday's practice. "It will be a big game for us. They're a strong team. They've got a lot of confidence right now. They've shown game in and game out they're one of the best teams in the league."
Meanwhile, the Fire is struggling with inconsistent play.
"We're at a point where if the playoffs would start tomorrow, we'd be out," Pause added. "Every game is now big just because we need points, regardless of the opponent. We need wins."
Pause didn't have much interest in revenge as a motivator; RSL defeated the Fire in the Eastern Conference championship game last fall in front of a full-throttle Toyota Park crowd.
"It's a new year," Pause said. "Maybe you think about it a little bit; they're the team that knocked us out last year. But we're a new group. They've got some different guys. We're looking at it that way."
There is mixed news for the Fire on the injury/illness front.
Midfielder Patrick Nyarko and right back Dasan Robinson likely will miss Thursday's game with injuries. If Tim Ward isn't ready to return from injury himself, rookie Steven Kinney would get the start and his first MLS playing time, coach Carlos de los Cobos said.
Forward Brian McBride could be a second-half substitute Thursday, de los Cobos said, because the team wants to get the 38-year-old some rest before next week's SuperLiga games. The Fire play three SuperLiga games in six days at Toyota Park starting July 14.
Stefan Dimitrov would start in McBride's place.
Midfielder John Thorrington and forward Calen Carr ran laps during practice as a start toward regaining match fitness. Both have missed the entire season so far and are still a few weeks away. Forward Collins John has received clearance to return from a mystery illness and also will try to work his way back to match fitness, de los Cobos said.
Blanco watch returns: Former Fire forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco has a clause in his contract with Veracruz that allows him to return to MLS after the World Cup.
"We keep all options open," said Fire technical director Frank Klopas, who wouldn't say if he is in talks with the Blanco camp.
With last week's release of midfielder Julio Martinez, the Fire has an open roster spot for someone.