Here we are, right on the precipice of the MLS Cup Final! A journey that began March 8th with a loss at Houston may culminate in the Big Match being contested right here in Columbus on December 6th. Here are some things you need to know heading into the Eastern Conference Finals Leg 2 in New Jersey vs Red Bulls Sunday at 7:30 on Fox Sports 1.
What's At Stake
MLS' two-leg playoff system can be a bit confusing. Essentially Crew SC lead a double-length game at the half 2-0. Because road goals are a tie-breaker, shutting out New York last Sunday at MAPFRE was almost as big as winning the match itself. Essentially Red Bulls will have to take game 2 by 3 goals or beat Columbus 2-0 through extra time and take it to a shootout. If Crew SC scores even one goal that may be plenty enough to eliminate New York.
Root for Portland at Dallas (5pm Sunday, ESPN) The Timbers beat FC Dallas 3-1 at home last weekend. If the Oregon side finishes the job a victorious Crew SC will host the MLS Cup Final on December 6th at 4pm. You can buy tickets now and of course if the game is elsewhere your money will be refunded.
Crew Game Plan Works Brilliantly
Last Sunday Crew SC set an MLS record for fastest ever playoff goal with Justin Meram's tally 9 (!) seconds into the match. The early score allowed Columbus to take a more defensive posture than I've seen all season. Red Bulls like to press forward and despite missing defender Gaston Sauro (suspended for yellow card accumulation) Crew SC were able lock down and frustrate the usually able New Yorkers. Kudos to Tyson Wahl, in for Sauro, for playing his best game as a professional when it counted most. I believe Columbus will look to play a similar style Sunday, especially with the big bodied Argentinian Sauro back in the starting 11. Look for an early wave of attacking from Columbus in search of a first half lead and then a more conservative approach to finish.
Front Office Kudos
Players win championships and the Crew SC brain trust has done an outstanding job of making this side better in-season. Not an easy job when you work in Columbus, Ohio. Superstar players like Montreal striker Didier Drogba (signed in July) are not going to be allocated here. Scouting is key and the list of players acquired since the season began is impressive. Harrison Afful (added in late July) is anything but awful. The speedy back teams with fellow wing defender Waylon Francis to push forward and create match-up nightmares in the attack.
Sauro (signed in August) was concussed five minutes into his Crew SC debut, but since his return has given the side a physical presence in the central defense missing since Chad Marshall left for Seattle.
Midfielder Cedrick Mabwati (signed last winter, but on loan to a Spanish club for much of the MLS campaign) has been coming off the bench like a lightning bolt since his arrival, and I guarantee an exhausted Red Bulls defense swallowed hard when he came on late last Sunday. His assist in the 85th was his goal in all but the box score.
And let's not forget striker Jack McInerney (over from Montreal in season). His work against DC in a 5-0 end of season thrashing was huge in that victory to cement the second seed.
Kei Kamara is an awesome physical specimen and at the top of his game. We've seen all the goals, but what impressed me greatly on Sunday was how much he was back helping to shore up the defense. This was especially true when Crew SC were attempting to clear corner kicks. Not all strikers will do the dirty work, but Kamara does Brian McBride style.
Bottom line? Red Bulls are just too far in the hole to save their season. Dallas at least has a punchers chance with that road goal in their pocket.
Brian Phillips is the afternoon DJ at the legendary Independent Radio blowtorch WWCD102.5 FM. He also knows a bunch of stuff about a bunch of stuff.