Monday MLS Breakdown: Familiar Finalists?

With the New York Red Bulls and the Columbus Crew through to the MLS Cup finals, Goal.com's Kyle McCarthy sees two teams with similar adherence to teamwork and consistency. Where has he seen that before?
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 one.

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 winter.

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, doesn’t it?

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 expectations?

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 kylemccarthy@gmail.com.