There are too many variables to consider when assessing whether Columbus
or New York holds the upper hand for their meeting Sunday in MLS Cup 2008 (TV, ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
They are both comfortable in their skins, playing efficient and effective soccer,
and aren't likely to conjure up radical wrinkles just because they're in the final. They know each other well but far more importantly, they know what they do well and why they win.
"Normally, if you're taking, if you're scoring a lot of goals then you're usually taking a lot of goals also or vice versa," says Crew defender Frankie Hejduk
, trying to explain how coach Sigi Schmid
transformed a sub-.500 team into this year's Supporters'
Shield winner. "If you're not scoring, if you're not taking as many goals, you're not scoring as many goals. But this team has just been an incredibly balanced team both offensively
and defensively, and Sigi's really instilled that in us, especially this year."
The Crew scored more goals and allowed fewer than New York during the regular season; the Red
Bulls won two of the three regular-season meetings, but one of those games was played seven months ago and in the other, Columbus rested six starters.
In its victory, Columbus pounded
New York, 3-1, Sept. 18. Shortly after that match, New York coach Juan Pablo Osorio
benched three of his four midseason foreign signings to go with younger
So really none of the three regular-season meetings is of any real use in forecasting the final, which is as it should be. Some angles may be somewhat esoteric, but in a
final that matches up the league's smallest market against its biggest, and the top seed against the bottom feeder, subtleties may reign supreme. THE
SOUTH AMERICAN FACTOR.
New York has the prized Colombian finisher, Juan Pablo Angel
, who can turn the most mediocre service into a dangerous chance.
Mexican centerback Diego Jimenez
is the only one of the midseason quartet to keep his spot, and if defender Jeff Parke
hadn't been suspended by the league, who knows if he'd be out there. Osorio has used Juan Pietravallo
off the bench in the playoffs and may need their experience.
Columbus relies on MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto
as it attacking
catalyst, and fellow Argentine left back Gino Padula
to balance out the wild, headlong rushes of Hejduk on the right. Up front, Venezuelan striker Alejandro Moreno
led the team with nine goals and has formed a telepathic partnership with Schelotto that often befuddles defenses that can't decide if Moreno
is the target or the decoy. The answer? He's both. Advantage:
Crew. YOUNG AMERICANS.
Playing in an MLS Cup is a new deal for many of the participants. Schelotto and Angel have played in dozens, if not hundreds, of pressure games, How their younger domestic teammates fare may
dictate the outcome.
Former holding midfielder Danny O'Rourke
is a reliable centerback partner for Chad
, who ended 2007 on season-ending IR but has blossomed into a spirited, dominant leader. Their timing and cohesion will be essential to control Angel, and provide cover if wide
midfielders Dave van den Bergh
or Dane Richards
breach the flanks.
The enigmatic Eddie Gaven
, who started his career with New York, is finally forging his potential in his sixth pro season, and scored the dramatic game-winner against Chicago in
the conference final. Gaven patrols the right side of midfield; on the left, Robbie Rogers
can speed into spaces and either go for goal or cut the ball across.
If asked to track back to contain the Red Bulls wide players, as they did effectively against Chicago, it may impair them offensively.
and second-year pro Sinisa Ubiparipovic
have anchored the central midfield for New York but both hobbled off in the Western Conference final
against Real Salt Lake. They are not particularly elegant but honest workers and decent passers. If Rojas starts in place of Ubiparipovic, the Red Bulls must adjust their monitoring of Schelotto
and also keep an eye on Brad Evans
, who likes to lance forward in Schelotto's wake to hit shots and through balls. Mike Magee
scored five goals in 26 games (18 starts) this season and gives Osorio another offensive option. Left back Kevin Goldthwaite
far the most minutes of his four-year MLS career (2,438) and every minute in the playoffs. Advantage:
Crew. KEEPING THE FAITH.
Red Bulls goalie Danny Cepero
, 23, has just five MLS games on his resume, but he's a quick, fearless, athletic keeper
with good hands. A few flubs in the 3-0 win over Houston didn't cost him and he played a nearly error-free game against Real Salt Lake. Both of those games were on the road in front of sellout
crowds. He might get rattled Sunday but is more likely to relish the occasion and play off the charts. If the goalposts are as good to him as they were last week, Columbus has no chance unless it
gets to the rebounds. Will Hesme
r, 27, played a few games for Kansas City in 2006 and 20 games with Columbus last year, so all of his playoff
experience has come in the last three games. As goalie of the team expected to win, he'll have tons of pre-game pressure to handle and one strength of the Red Bulls is they can test the keeper
in many ways. Columbus hasn't dealt well with the surface and dimensions at Home Depot Center this season; it conceded five goals in games against Chivas USA (0-2) and the Galaxy (3-3).
Even. OLD HANDS.
His is Hejduk's's first MLS Cup, but has played in Gold Cups
and World Cups and played collegiately at UCLA. Unless he gets too pumped up, he'll shine. Brian Carroll
helped United win MLS Cup 2004 in his rookie
season and has been outstanding this year as the midfield linchpin.
This is John Wolyniec
's third go-round in New York; he started his
career in 1999 with the MetroStars, and then played for, in order, Chicago, New England, MetroStars, Columbus, Los Angeles and the Red Bulls. He's not a big talent but plays with a big heart.
Right back Chris Leitch
is also an ex-Crewman (2002, 2006) who has been around a while and has peaked in the playoffs; can he contain Rogers and whatever else
Columbus sends down his flank? Advantage: