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Nov 13, 2008

Surprise finalists vie for Western Conference title

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 with Columbus overcoming Chicago 2-1 to reach its first MLS Cup final, all eyes now turn to the Western Conference final. 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.

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.

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

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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