Two back lines of four, a double duet of central mids, twin lines of three attackers in support of lone strikers. And the goalies, of course.
On paper, the Revs and Red Bulls look similar in their 4-2-3-1 formations. On the field, traits and personalities differ greatly. Here are three key questions heading into the first leg of their Western Conference finals to be played Sunday (live at 1:30 p.m. ET, NBC) at Red Bull Arena, which is sold out.
1. Can either central midfield pair cancel out the other?
Veterans Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander back the Red Bulls’ attacking quartet. Directly opposing them will be the Revs’ duo of Scott Caldwell and Jermaine Jones, and if either pairing squelches the other, it’s likely the superior performance will win the match. That old cliché about the game being won or lost in the middle of the field has seldom been more appropriate; their battles will be the fulcrum around which the game swirls and flows.
Since Jones arrived, the Revs are 10-1-1. While thrashing Columbus, 7-3, on aggregate in the Eastern Conference semifinals New England has showcased its own four-pronged attack force. Forward Charlie Davies scored 24 fewer goals than Bradley Wright-Phillips’ record-tying 27, yet his dual threat of getting in behind defenses and dragging defenders to create gaps is a prime reason Lee Nguyen set a team record by bagging 18 goals from midfield.
Eastern Conference Finals, First
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 23
New York vs. New England, 1:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Eastern Conference Finals, Second Leg
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 29
New England vs. New York, 3:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Yet the Red Bulls may hold a slight edge in MLS playoff experience. McCarty played on the 2010 FC Dallas team that lost the MLS Cup final to Colorado on an overtime own goal. McCarty and Alexander, a reserve on the 2010 Dallas team in his rookie season, played smart, shrewd games as the Red Bulls defeated first-place D.C. United, 3-2, on aggregate after beating defending champion Sporting Kansas City twice -- in the regular-season finale and in the knockout round.
2. Which attacking quartet is superior?
The Revs have to contend with BWP, the league’s top scorer flanked by the resolute elegance of Thierry Henry on the left and blisteringly fast Lloyd Sam on the right. Playing in the pocket behind BWP, Peguy Luyindula has rediscovered some of the guile and brio that once lit up Ligue 1.
By switching from a 4-4-2 formation and pulling Henry from the front line to the left wing, the Red Bulls have unleashed the Frenchman’s deceptive dribbles and masterful touches to maximum effect. Poor form from Tim Cahill offered the opportunity for Luyindula, yet the Australian international is a potent option to either start or come off the bench.
For the Revs, Nguyen roams freely from his central slot behind Davies and thus foes are constantly forced to track him and switch up to also monitor wide men Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury, as well as Jones, whose runs from deep have produced chances and goals for the Revs. Jones can hit a ball from distance, of course, but defenses can’t relax if he sits back; his switches of play and lofted balls into the corners are among the most accurate and effective in the league.
3. Which home field has the advantage?
The game at Red Bull Arena is sold out. The Red Bulls averaged 19,421 this year at home, where they were 10-3-4 in the regular season. For the second leg, the Revs will have strong support of their own. A huge crowd of 32,766 turned out for the regular-season finale and 20,184 fans viewed the second leg of a series against the Crew that carried little suspense.
The Revs, 6-9-2 away from home, also start the series knowing New York prevailed in the last meeting at Gillette Stadium, 2-0, but that was way back on June 8. Yet at home this year the Revs have also lost to Chicago and Columbus since the World Cup break. In early August -- again, pre-Jones -- the Red Bulls took a 2-1 decision at home.