Commentary

Breaking down Sunday's Crew-Red Bulls MLS playoff game

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

Things are bubbling up nicely for the Columbus-Red Bulls Eastern Conference finals. Both games are sellouts.
Official word came on Thursday. Crew SC announced that its home game Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium, the capacity of which has been increased by the addition of bleacher seating and selling of standing-room only tickets, will break an attendance record (20,883) set 14 years ago. The Red Bulls have sold all 25,219 tickets for the second leg to be played Nov. 29.

Eastern Conference finals, First Leg
Columbus-New York, MAPFRE Stadium
Sunday 5 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
 
There are experienced players on both squads who have dealt with frenzied atmospheres and playoff pressure before, and each team features prolific scorers and clever playmakers, so the games could be faster and more fluid than is typical at this stage of the playoffs. One of these original MLS teams will reach the MLS Cup final for just the second time in its 20-year history; Columbus beat the Red Bulls, 3-1, in the 2008 title match at StubHub Center.

Both teams are also plagued by memories of their postseason defeats last season; New England pummeled the Crew, 7-3 on aggregate, in the conference semis, and then edged past the Red Bulls, which lost the first game at home, 2-1, and went out on aggregate, 4-3, after a 2-2 tie.
The Revs are out of the picture this time around and though New York won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield by finishing seven points ahead of the Eastern Conference runner-up Crew, it lost one of its two regular-season games in Columbus, 2-1, on July 4. In that match, Columbus striker Kei Kamara vividly countered those critics who regard him strictly as a goalscorer.

In that match Kamara set up both goals for Ethan Finlay. The first assist, a deft header from a long kick by keeper Steve Clark, landed softly for Finlay to hit first-time. On the second, Kamara headed the ball during the buildup and then drifted to the back post to meet a cross from Federico Higuain, but rather than try to score himself from about 12 yards out, he nodded the ball square. Finlay got to it just before Kemar Lawrence and stabbed it into the net. Kamara also threatened from the flank. In the third minute, from the right side, he lofted a diagonal ball to Justin Meram on the opposite wing. Meram’s fierce volley zoomed just over the crossbar.

That was Kamara’s only game earning more than one assist, but it was also just one of 11 games in which he directly contributed to at least two scores. Only two players took more than his 135 shots and with Red Bull centerback Damien Perrinelle sidelined by a knee injury the Crew SC attackers could find a lot of room; in that July 4 match Kamara, Finlay, Meram and Higuain combined for 16 of the Crew’s 19 shots.

By tying Sebastian Giovinco for the league lead with 22 goals, Kamara doubled his previous best season (11 goals for Sporting Kansas City in 2012). Teammate Michael Parkhurst-- who played against him as a Rev from 2005 to 2008 –--believes Kamara and the Crew system mesh snugly.

“He’s just a handful to play against,” said Parkhurst during a media teleconference call Wednesday. “I’m very glad I play with him and not against him because I see him on a daily basis and he’s the best athlete I’ve ever played with. There’s nothing he can’t do out on the field.

“Also I think with the way he fits in our system… It’s a good match. Basically we like to get the ball wide and we put a lot of crosses into the box. That’s one of Kei’s strengths. He’s definitely taken full advantage of it. Just because he fits the system doesn’t guarantee success. He started this season very well and obviously he’s a huge part of this team.”

New York’s success is credited in part to the pressing system instilled by head coach Jesse Marsch. When the ball is won, the Red Bulls get it moving so Lloyd Sam, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella and Sacha Kljestan can unhinge the opposing defense. Yet they are also quite capable of patient, possession play.

Buttressed by captain Dax McCarty and Felipe in midfield, the Red Bulls led the league in goals scored (62) and goal difference (plus-19).

“I would just add the Red Bulls have certainly done a great job of having a style of play and sticking to their style of play and the style of play being successful,” said  Crew coach Gregg Berhalter. “I’ve had a lot of admiration for what they’ve done this year when you see opponents passing percentage in their own half it’s extremely low. That shows that they’re executing their game plan.”

The Red Bulls game plan will be different than that for D.C. United in the conference semifinals. New York repelled most of United’s direct attacks and keeper Luis Robles needed to make just two saves in the second game after facing zero shots on goal in the first. New York has won two out of three regular-season games against Columbus, which must play the first leg without suspended centerback Gaston Sauro. Crew midfielder Wil Trapp played just a few minutes of those three games and will be asked to keep possession and neutralize the Red Bulls' pressure.

As for the ghosts of past playoff failures, McCarty believes that Marsch taking over from club icon Mike Petke and the offseason departures of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill cleared the decks for a new era. Adding quality players such as Grella and Kljestan and grooming U.S. U-20 defender Matt Miazga into a reliable starter certainly helped.

“It’s obviously a great challenge for us because we realize that maybe history is not on our side, but I think the good thing about our team is that we’re a little bit young and a little bit naive,” says McCarty, 28 and a veteran of 10 MLS seasons. "I think that all we care about right now is just the next game. All we care about is winning.

“That’s a great testament to the coaching staff for what they’ve done, the mentality that they’ve been able to establish within our team, the confidence that they’ve been able to give us as younger players and as a younger team. The balance between having a veteran presence on the team and making sure that we’re still young and fresh and have a lot of new faces, it’s been a great balance. I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’ve been so successful.”
 
Regular season meetings
March 28 -- Columbus 1 (Tchani), New York 2 (B. Wright-Phillips, Grella).
July 4 -- Columbus 2 (Finlay 2), New York 1 (Abang).
Oct. 9 -- New York 2 (Sam, B. Wright-Phillips), Columbus 1 (Meram).
 
Playoff results
Nov. 1 -- D.C. United 0, New York 1 (McCarty).
Nov. 8 – New York 1 (B. Wright-Phillips), D.C. United 0.

Nov. 1 --
Montreal 2 (Bernier, Venegas), Columbus 1 (Higuain).
Nov. 8 -- Columbus 3 (Kamara 2, Finlay), Montreal 1 (Duka) OT.

Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
Columbus –
Kei Kamara 24 goals, Ethan Finlay 13 assists, Steve Clark 128 saves.
New York –
Bradley Wright-Phillips 18 goals, Sacha Kljestan 15 assists, Luis Robles 88 saves.

Suspended
Columbus – Gaston Sauro.

Yellow Cards
Columbus – Harrison Afful.
New York – Matt Miazga, Ronald Zubar, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan.
 
Bottom Line
These teams combined for 120 goals during the regular season so this may not be a typically cautious playoff series. They will try to compensate for the absences of Sauro and Perrinelle, but it’s hard to forecast zeroes on either side of the scoreboard.
 
Prediction
Columbus 2, New York 2.
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