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Surprise matchups abound in the conference finals

When the 2008 season began, selecting a playoff final foursome of Chicago, Columbus, Real Salt Lake and New York would have been like predicting Lindsay Lohan would stay out of the tabloids. Not even Major League Soccer's own version of the Amazing Kreskin, Shep Messing -- the only man brave enough to predict New York's shocking first-round win over Houston -- could have provided sufficient clairvoyance to come up with this year's quartet of conference finalists.

But these four teams have survived the first round of the playoffs, and each side can plausibly state its case for prevailing this weekend and reaching the MLS Cup final. Columbus had the best regular-season record, while Chicago's offense is as varied as any in the league. Out west, Real Salt Lake has two in-form attackers, Javier Morales and Yura Movsisyan, but New York can say the same of Juan Pablo Angel and Dane Richards.

So while the four qualifiers were unexpected, this much is certain: A first-time MLS Cup finalist will emerge from this weekend's pair of games.

Columbus Crew vs. Chicago Fire

While the Western portion of the bracket looks like a 10-car pileup, the Eastern half proved mercifully predictable, and as a result, a heavyweight matchup featuring some of the league's best attacking talent is in store.

But trying to pick a favorite in this match is like trying to tell the Olsen twins apart. Not only do both sides have dynamic playmakers in Chicago's Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Crew's Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but they also possess talented complementary parts in attack and defense. The regular-season series didn't reveal much either, with both matches ending in a draw.

Conference Finals
Thursday
Chicago at Columbus
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)

Saturday
New York at Real Salt Lake
9:30 p.m. ET

Key matchup: Chicago forward Brian McBride vs. Columbus defender Chad Marshall

With the teams so evenly matched, set pieces will be critical, and the matchup between Marshall and former Crew hero McBride will go far in determining the outcome. When the team's last met on Oct. 12, McBride twice evaded Marshall to score off dead-ball situations, and the Crew defender will have to be better tuned in to negate that threat.

McBride's hold-up play is also a key component of the Fire's attack, allowing Chicago to break out of their half and giving Blanco time to find the dead spots in the opposition defense. If Marshall can take away that aspect of McBride's game while also doing his own bit to threaten on set pieces, then advantage Columbus.

Players to watch:

For Columbus -- Brian Carroll, Schelotto, Robbie Rogers, and Alejandro Moreno

For Chicago -- Bakary Soumare, Chris Rolfe, Justin Mapp, and Blanco

Carroll has been one of the Crew's unsung heroes all season, initiating the Columbus attack while also defending with gusto. Schelotto's MVP season has been well-documented, and his assist on Rogers' goal last week against Kansas City illustrated the Argentine's ability to change a game with one pass. Rogers is perhaps the best young attacker in the league, and his ability to take on defenders is a key element of the Crew's offense. Moreno led the Crew in goals, with his hold-up play and underrated passing providing variety to the Crew's attack.

Soumare has been the Fire's most consistent defender all year, and he'll be counted on to blunt the influence of Moreno. Blanco is the Fire's answer to Schelotto, a wild card who is the creative hub of his team. Rolfe has been the team's hottest attacker over the past three weeks, while Mapp provides a solid threat on the opposite flank.

X-factors: Columbus forward Steve Lenhart and Chicago goalkeeper Jon Busch

Lenhart may not be the most graceful player ever to lace up cleats, but he's proven his super-sub credentials this season, scoring three of his five goals after the 86th minute.

When Busch was let go by Columbus prior to the 2007 season, the Fire keeper had some choice words for coach Sigi Schmid, insisting he would never play for him again. Busch says that his anger has long since subsided, but the chance to get back at his former manager will leave this season's Goalkeeper of the Year plenty motivated.

Outlook: In a match as finely balanced as this one, it's tempting to pick home side Columbus, but Chicago tied for the most road points in the league, and there are some other reasons to lean toward the Fire.

With both teams expected to take a mark-by-committee approach to controlling the opponent's playmaker, it likely will be up to the resident sidekicks to make a difference, and Chicago has a player in Rolfe who is closer to top form than any of his Crew counterparts. The difference isn't much, mind you, as both Rogers and Brad Evans have upped their games of late for Columbus. But in a match like this, small deviations in performance likely will have huge consequences. The Fire's ability on set pieces also gives them an edge.

For these reasons, I expect Chicago to prevail in a thriller, with overtime and penalty kicks a distinct possibility.

Real Salt Lake vs. New York Red Bulls

While the Red Bulls are deservedly receiving plaudits for their shocking first-round upset over Houston, the win has served to obscure the fact that New York gave up a slew of chances, only to be bailed out by goalkeeper Danny Cepero and some woeful finishing on the part of the Dynamo. Given the scintillating form of RSL attackers Morales and Movsisyan, it seems unlikely that a similar performance by the Red Bulls' defense will yield the same result.

That said, both sides are brimming with confidence, having secured improbable road results this past weekend.

Key matchup: New York coach Juan Carlos Osorio vs. himself

After a season of upheaval, Osorio appears to have finally settled on a lineup in which the players have well-established roles, allowing the belief within the team to mushroom. Yet the Colombian's impulse to tweak his lineup no matter how well things are going is well-known, and if Osorio can't resist the urge to make changes, the moves are just as likely to blow up in his face as they are to succeed.

The biggest question for Osorio is: Will he persist with his inexperienced midfield pairing of Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Luke Sassano? The youngsters held up well in the Houston series, but the RSL central duo of Kyle Beckerman and Morales are operating near their peak, unlike Houston's Ricardo Clark and Dwayne De Rosario.

Players to watch:

For Real Salt Lake -- Nat Borchers, Morales, Beckerman, and Yura Movsisyan

For New York -- Andrew Boyens, Dave van den Bergh, Dane Richards, and Juan Pablo Angel

The task of stopping New York danger man Angel will fall primarily to Borchers, who has enjoyed a solid return season to MLS after spending time in Norway. Morales and Beckerman provide the ideal combination of skill and grit, making for one of the premier midfield tandems in MLS. Movsisyan's blend of power and speed will pose a very different kind of test for New York than what they saw against Houston.

It will be up to Boyens to mark Movsisyan out of the game, but pace has never been the New York defender's strong suit, making the matchup difficult. Van den Bergh had a quiet series against Houston, but his service from the wings is one key to Angel's effectiveness. Richards will try to use his speed advantage to terrorize the RSL defense, while Angel's finishing remains New York's biggest weapon.

X factors: RSL midfielder Will Johnson and New York goalkeeper Danny Cepero

In a midfield already boasting Beckerman and Morales, it's sometimes easy to overlook Johnson. But the Canadian is comfortable on the ball and possesses a wicked shot, and his work rate is such that he'll be expected to help out defensively on Richards.

Cepero turned in a legendary performance in the second leg against Houston, and he'll need to be at his best again to deny RSL.

Outlook: In the first round, Houston's relative lack of pace on both sides of the ball proved to be a perfect fit for New York, accentuating the Red Bulls' strengths while patching over their weaknesses. The matchups don't line up as favorably this time. Granted, Richards' pace is still a weapon to be exploited, but RSL's advantage in center midfield and Movsisyan's speed should cause plenty of problems for New York.

Can the Red Bulls win? Without question. Angel is a striker who needs just one opportunity to score, and if he can get his team in front, then the tactics of the game play right into New York's hands, with Richards ready to pounce on the counterattack.

But I expect RSL, with Movsisyan and Morales leading the way, to make their first trip to the MLS Cup final.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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