FOXBORO, Mass. -- Clint Dempsey or Chad Marshall? Chad Marshall or Clint Dempsey?
That's been the subject of many a pregame tailgate over the past several months as soccer fans have argued their cases as to which of the two former teammates on the U.S. Under-20 National Team should win Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year award.
Columbus Crew faithful are quick to point out how Marshall played in 28 of the team's 30 matches, and at a level that put him into consideration for Defender of the Year alongside teammate and probable winner Robin Fraser.
And they would be correct in saying so, as the former Stanford All-American has shown the type of tackling ability, physicality and savvy that will undoubtedly make him a choice for the full U.S. National Team in the very near future.
The New England Revolution, on the other hand, like to talk about the overall impact Dempsey had on the club, as he was one of the team's top players throughout the season while playing in a position -- in the center of the midfield -- that few rookies in this league ever get to see.
One could also argue that the former Furman star was one of the best players in the entire league during the first half of the season when he stormed out of the gate with five goals and an assist through the team's first 16 games.
No matter which side of this debate you are on, there is one fact that's irrefutable: Clint Dempsey is still playing soccer in November, and Chad Marshall isn't.
And for the Revolution, that's all that matters now that the Columbus series (won 2-1 on aggregate goals) is behind them and a date in the Eastern Conference final with D.C. United awaits on Saturday night at RFK Stadium.
"Everything I did this season was really just a buildup for now," said Dempsey after the team's final training session at Gillette Stadium on Thursday before making the trip to the nation's capital. "Towards the end of the season we were put into situations where it was 'must-win,' so it was like being in the playoffs even back then. Going into this game, it's the same thing: win or go home. So it's the same mentality."
Just to sneak into the playoffs as the fourth-seeded team in the East, the Revs had to win their final match of the season. In that game against Chicago, it was Dempsey who got things started with a goal off a corner kick in the 55th minute of his side's 2-1 victory. It was simply another highlight moment for a player who earned a spot in the starting XI three games into the 2004 season.
"Unfortunately, we had a lot of injuries. But fortunately enough for me, I was allowed to get in and make an impact," he said. "I just kind of went with it and ran with it. As the year has gone on I've gotten more comfortable and more confident. It's just been a smooth transition. In that sense, I was lucky."
Dempsey said he noticed right away how much quicker he had to think when he had the ball as opposed to how it was for him in college. The speed of the game was faster, and the physicality of the play was much different than he was used to.
He's also one that will admit how the length of the season was something he had to adjust to. A 30-game schedule and training most every day through eight months of the regular season and playoffs to go along with over a month of preseason training took its toll.
"It's been a long season, but also a great learning experience," he said. "I feel like I've learned more in MLS than I did all through college."
As a kid who grew up in Texas and went to college in South Carolina, getting used to the cold weather during the spring and fall in the Northeast has also been an experience.
Dealing with the weather has been a fine trade-off for the expanded options he has when it comes to fishing -- one of his passions growing up in Texas -- as the 21-year-old made fast friends with Steve Ralston, who has long been the hunting and fishing extraordinaire of the Revolution.
He also took the advice of a few teammates and decided to live with a host family rather than live on his own during his first-year in the league just as players such as Taylor Twellman did when they first got to the Revolution.
"It allowed me to settle in," said Dempsey, who lives just a five-minute drive away from the Big Razor. "I think it's good living in Foxboro because there's not many distractions. It's a small town -- I'm not a big city person. In a city, you have the distractions of going out or with girls walking around everywhere. Being in Foxboro has definitely helped me stay more focused and stay more hungry to achieve the goal of winning MLS Cup."
To do that, Dempsey will need to have another strong game on Saturday night.
While playing in RFK in front of perhaps the most boisterous crowd in all of Major League Soccer will not be a cakewalk, it has been made a bit easier for him considering that D.C. United midfielder Dema Kovalenko will be sitting this match out due to yellow card accumulation.
Lately, Kovalenko has been lining up on the left flank, but the six-year veteran can often be found in the middle of the park when D.C. United is on the attack.
Even though the Revolution coaching staff and players were very careful with their words regarding the absences of both Kovalenko and All-Star centerback Ryan Nelsen (yellow card accumulation, as well), it's obviously a situation that helps the away side.
"If you have a choice playing against a six- or seven-year pro or a first-year rookie, then you would take the rookie," admitted Nicol, alluding to the expected insertion of rookie Josh Gros into the D.C. United midfield. "But I'm a firm believer that whoever you play against, whether they are good, bad or indifferent, you still have to do it. You have to do your own thing and make sure you do your own stuff to the best of your ability."
The center midfield triumvirate of Dempsey, Shalrie Joseph and playmaker Jose "Pepe" Cancela will still have to deal with Argentine maestro Christian Gomez, who has been spectacular since signing with United in August.
They'll also have to contend with longtime MLS and National Team stalwart Ben Olsen, who is having his best season in years, which is why Dempsey said he won't be breathing too much easier with Kovalenko on the sideline.
"D.C. is a good team and they play really well at home," he said. "The last time we played there (a 1-0 loss on Oct. 9), they outplayed us. I definitely think they have players who can fill in, as they have a lot of depth. At the same time, it's definitely going to hurt the team, but they're strong enough as a team that it won't hurt then too much ... I'm curious to see the lineup they put out there and if they can adjust."
Whether the Revs lose on Saturday night or go on to win MLS Cup, Nicol knows he has a player to build around in Dempsey.
While the former Liverpool legend is quick to say that his rookie midfielder has "as much ability as anyone in the league," he also knows there's a lot of room for improvement that will only uplift his game to levels that should put him on the national team sooner than later.
"Clint's still inexperienced," said Nicol. "Clint still runs as much as anybody during the game. When he gets a lot more experience, he'll probably be able to pull that mileage in a wee bit. He does a lot of running that's unnecessary."
Of all the problems to have, that's not a bad one. Dempsey may have tired himself out more than he should have during his first season in the league, but it may result in a Rookie of the Year trophy and an appearance in MLS Cup on November 14. And that's more than Dempsey could have asked for when he was drafted in the first-round by the Revolution last January.
"I definitely didn't think things would end up the way they did," he said. "But I'm happy they did."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org