By Kyle McCarthy
The status quo sure has a funny way of presenting itself.
After Columbus beat Chicago on Thursday night to seal the Eastern
Conference championship and New York ousted Real Salt Lake with ample
aid from the woodwork on Saturday night, the MLS Cup final will pair
two teams making their championship bows for the first time since year
Yet these two sides aren't fundamentally different from the Houston and
New England clubs that have squared off in the past two championship
games. Their legacy will remain on display in Sunday's final.
The sum is still greater than the sum of its parts. The team mentality
so rife throughout the league triumphs again in the playoffs as
consistency and continuity reign again.
Columbus has shown that sort of championship form for the majority of
the season. The Crew were Supporters' Shield winners after missing out
on the playoffs last season and being projected as playoff periphery
once again this season. Sigi Schmid has turned in a coaching job primed
for the annals of league history this season after two arduous years of
team building. The best team in the league has a D.C. United discard
(Brian Carroll) and a rookie in its engine room (Brad Evans), a
defensive midfielder masquerading as a centerback (Danny O’Rourke) and
a previously undistinguished target man leading the line (Alejandro
Moreno) instead of the Polish Magic Man Schmid hoped to sign last
No matter for Schmid, who coaxed career seasons out of those four
players and assembled a tactical game plan to take advantage of his
side's gifted wingers and inspirational playmaker, Guillermo Barros
Schelotto. It isn't joga bonito, but it is cutting and decisive through
the midfield and often fantastic to watch for the neutral.
There would be no pulsating attack without a firm defensive core. With
Carroll providing the cover so desperately missing last year and Chad
Marshall returning from his injury hell, there is the stability about
the back five in front of the similarly steady Wil Hesmer that allows
the Crew to attack with reckless abandon.
This season played out as if Houston or New England plopped down in the
Midwest and reincarnated in a slightly more entrenched form.
New York shared very few qualities with those three clubs four weeks
ago. No teamwork, no continuity and little hope for a team that looked
like it would have to watch the playoffs from the basement of Nevada
Smith’s soccer bar in the East Village. But they backed into the
post-season, and tinkerer extraordinare Juan Carlos Osorio saw the
light created by that good fortune. He dropped his three South American
mid-season signings and went about doing what no one thought the Red
Bulls could do.
Most thought that if the Red Bulls were to somehow reach this point, it
would be on the shoulders of Juan Pablo Angel. It didn't work out as
planned. The Colombian marksman played his role in the opening round
before all but disappearing in Utah.
Instead, the star turns came from the ragtag and suspension-ridden
bunch. By nixing players who were long past usefulness in the starting
XI and instituting young, hungry players in their place, Osorio
fostered the team spirit and continuity lacking for most of the season.
Once he found what worked, he stuck with it, even if it meant starting
a hamstrung Sinisa Ubiparipovic. Only Andrew Boyens' broken forearm
merited a change as Osorio belatedly altered his ways when it mattered.
That side Osorio showed so much faith in played the way underdogs need
to play. A once-porous defense tightened with the excellent Diego
Jimenez providing the organizational beacon desperately required and
Danny Cepero inspiring more confidence in his colleagues than Jon
Conway ever has. The central midfielders placed their primary emphasis
on defense with wingers Dane Richards and Dave van den Bergh springing
the counterattack when available. Angel and John Wolyniec did all the
little things strikers need to do when possession is scarce.
Well-intentioned graft and determination isn't enough to overcome most
playoff teams with superior talent. The Red Bulls enjoyed two benefits
every underdog needs: a ruthless streak in front of goal and a
persistent dash of luck.
One gilt-edged chance -- with an ample dash of industry from van den
Bergh's tireless run from midfield after he started the play -- turned
into the lone goal on Saturday night. And the posts, which have been on
New York’s side since the final game of the season, stuck with them
again, denying RSL on multiple occasions.
The final whistle provided salvation from a second-half onslaught and
sent the repressed Red Bulls fan base to its first final with visions
of the 2005 Galaxy, which snuck into the playoffs and ended up lifting
the trophy, dancing in their heads.
So, Sunday’s final at the Home Depot Center comes down to two teams
with two opposite stories providing two reminders of the importance of
continuity, teamwork and spirit in the playoffs. Sounds familiar,
Semifinals, Second Leg – Questions, Thoughts and Answers
Goal.com Player of the Week – Diego Jimenez, DF, New York
After two imprudent first-half lunges, it looked as if Jimenez would be
a liability. But aside from those moments, Jimenez proved colossal time
and again on Saturday night. Maybe this is why he once earned a call
into the Mexican youth national setup.
What was he thinking? Jamison Olave, DF, Real Salt Lake
Olave certainly shouldn't have dived in front of John Wolyniec, who
doesn't have the speed or the turning radius to beat Olave if the big
defender stands him up, especially out on the flank. Instead, Olave
dove in, Nick Rimando made a hash of a weak cross and Dave van den
Bergh delivered New York to the MLS Cup final. Total and complete
disaster for the Colombian stopper.
Inanimate object of the week: The Rio Tinto goalposts
Never has a set of sticks so agonizingly contributed to a home team's
playoff downfall. Some scrap yard in the Salt Lake City area will have
some oddly-shaped metal to discard in the near future.
Four observations to start the week
1. Can the inherently self-loathing and skeptical Columbus fanbase
handle being prohibitive favorites to win the club's first ever MLS
Cup? More importantly, how well will their team handle the monumental
2. Is Chicago still waiting to come out of the locker room for the second half?
3. Real Salt Lake spent most of the season scraping by without a real
poacher to lead its line. It was the one final reminder of a team that
was supposed to be a year away from this stage. Fitting then that a
lack of finishing touch -- along with one moment of sheer defensive
madness from Olave -- proved RSL's undoing.
4. “It was ugly, it was lucky, but with this franchise we're going to
have to take it any way it comes,” van den Bergh said after the game.
“We won this title. This time next year no one will remember how the
game went, they just see the result, that the New York Red Bulls won
the Western Conference.” And then they'll ask how.
BONUS: New York has more road wins in the post-season (2) than it did in the regular season (1).
Goal.com MLS rankings
1. Columbus -- Prohibitive favorites to lift the team's first MLS Cup.
All things considered, the Crew would deserve it. Yet no team wins the
final on paper and Sunday's final won't be nearly as straightforward as
some expect. (1)
2. New York -- Look to the 2005 Galaxy side for precedent ahead of the
final. Those who rule out the Red Bulls do so at their peril. To put it
more bluntly: New York can lift the shiny new MLS Cup trophy. Who would
have dreamed those words four weeks ago? (4)
Home for the Holidays: Chicago, Real Salt Lake, Houston, Chivas USA,
New England, Kansas City, Colorado, D.C. United, Toronto, San Jose, FC
Dallas, Los Angeles
Kyle McCarthy’s Monday MLS Breakdown appears every Monday on Goal.com. You can reach Kyle via email at email@example.com.