By all accounts, the 2008 MLS Cup Final should be a mismatch, with the dynamic and dangerous Columbus Crew taking on the short-handed and overachieving New York Red Bulls.
It shouldn't be hard to predict the outcome when the Crew's multitalented attack takes on the Red Bulls and their patchwork defense, but given the dramatic path the Red Bulls have taken to their first MLS Cup final, nobody is likely to be in a hurry to write off a team that has already overcome so much.
Despite the disparity in their regular-season records, the Crew and Red Bulls should make the 2008 MLS Cup final a memorable one. Can Juan Carlos Osorio find a game plan to slow down Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the Crew's high-octane attack? Will star forward Juan Pablo Angel shine on Major League Soccer's biggest stage and show us why he is widely regarded as the league's best player? Can a team of quality stop a team of destiny?
These are just some of the questions this All-East MLS Cup final will present Sunday. You should also watch out for the following:
Five story lines to follow
1. The Red Bulls' Cinderella story.
After backing into the playoffs on the last day thanks to a D.C. United meltdown, the Red Bulls have taken full advantage of that second chance to pull off a pair of road upsets and capture the imagination and interest of media and fans in New York and New Jersey.
|MLS Cup final|
New York vs. Columbus
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif. 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
While neutral fans usually love an underdog, the Red Bulls seem to be getting more disdain than admiration for getting this far. That won't trouble the Red Bulls too much. It should simply help feed their "Us against the world" mentality. The real question is whether this team has one more upset left? If so, it is a story that would help raise the league's profile.
"[I] keep telling the guys that if we defend properly, we are competitive," said Osorio in a media conference call. "We play within the rules, we're aggressive in a controlled manner, if we play for each other, we play with each other, we compete for each other and we just keep clean sheets, we'll always have a chance to score goals, as we proved in the last games."
2. Schelotto vs. Angel.
Two of the league's most talented stars renew a rivalry whose humble beginnings can be traced back to Argentina, when Angel was leading River Plate and Schelotto was a standout for Boca Juniors. While the matchup of teams might not be what purists were hoping to see in the final, there is little arguing that having Angel and Schelotto playing in the league's most high-profile match is good for MLS.
In one corner you have Schelotto, the front-runner for the league MVP award and the catalyst that makes the vaunted Crew attack go with his sharp free kicks and perfect passes. In the other corner you have Angel, the deadly striker who overcame an injury-plagued first half of the season to score 14 goals after the All-Star break and carry the Red Bulls into the playoffs. Watching those two compete in a final will be worth the price of admission.
3. Sigi Schmid's triumphant return to L.A.
More than three and a half years ago Sigi Schmid was head coach of the first-place Los Angeles Galaxy. Having already won an MLS Cup title in 2002, Schmid figured to be a staple on the Galaxy sideline for a long time. At least until he was stunningly fired midway through the 2005 season.
Schmid will be back in Home Depot Center on Sunday, and while it won't be his first trip back, there will still be plenty of symbolism behind his return to an MLS Cup final. The Galaxy did win the MLS Cup in that 2005 season when Schmid was let go, but the club has been a virtual mess since. Now Schmid brings a strong, deep, young and entertaining Crew team to the HDC, something that won't be lost on L.A. fans attending the final.
4. Danny Cepero's miracle run
Two month ago, few people had ever heard of Danny Cepero, a young goalkeeper prospect who spent most of the 2008 season on loan with the Harrisburg City (Pa.) Islanders. When Red Bulls starting goalkeeper Jon Conway failed a drug test it paved the way for the young shot-stopper to get his first MLS experience playing in some of the most important and high-pressure games of the year.
Cepero has responded amazingly. From his YouTube classic of a goal from 80 yards away (against the Crew, no less), to his boatload of acrobatic and clutch saves in the playoffs, Cepero has become the poster child for the Red Bulls' improbable MLS Cup run, and could cap this Cinderella story with one more dream performance.
5. The long-suffering fans
Fans of the Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls have spent the past 13 years waiting for the chance to someday experience an MLS Cup. That's a over a decade of misery, disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. With two of MLS' original clubs finally reaching the title game, both sets of fans should be well-represented in sunny California next weekend, economic recession be damned. Watching those long-suffering fans enjoy Sunday's final at Home Depot Center should be as impressive a sight as the match itself.
Five matchups to watch
The league's best striker takes on the league's best defender. Marshall got the better of Angel the last time the two faced off, in a 3-1 Crew win on Sept. 18. However, Angel took advantage of Marshall's absence by scoring twice in a 3-1 win for the Red Bulls on Oct. 18 at Giants Stadium, the last time the teams met.
Marshall has the physical attributes to contain Angel, and is playing with a lot of confidence right now, but Angel has proven repeatedly to be a clutch player and could raise his game to a new level with a championship on the line.
"I'm pleased at the season he's [Marshall] had and the accolade [MLS Defender of the Year] that he received," said Schmid in a media conference call. "I think he was the best defender in the league this year in terms of central defenders for sure in my opinion."
2. Dave van den Bergh vs. Frankie Hejduk
The Red Bulls' most consistent performer all season, van den Bergh is a key figure in New York's offense, and his contributions are vital to a Red Bulls attack that relies much more on capitalizing upon its chances than on creating plenty of them. It will be up to Hejduk, with his high-energy approach and tireless tenacity, to make things difficult for the Dutch winger. If Hejduk can neutralize van den Bergh, the Red Bulls will struggle mightily to create chances.
3. Robbie Rogers vs. Chris Leitch
Many will see this as a mismatch the Crew could exploit effectively Sunday, but it may not be as big a mismatch as you think. Rogers got the better of the Red Bulls the last time they faced each other two months ago, producing a candidate for goal of the year in the process. Leitch was not in the lineup for that game. Jeff Parke started at right back that day and proved too slow for the speedy Rogers. In the two months since that game, Leitch has taken over at right back, stepped his game up and been a big contributor to the resurgence of the Red Bulls' defense. If Leitch can keep Rogers from wreaking havoc, the Red Bulls will stand a good chance of pulling off the upset.
4. Guillermo Barros Schelotto vs. Luke Sassano
It's almost unfair to look at this matchup and not feel for the Red Bulls' rookie, who must somehow find a way to contain the tricky and ever-dangerous Schelotto. Unfair until you consider the performances Sassano has delivered the past two weeks in neutralizing Houston Dynamo star Dwayne De Rosario and Real Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales. Sassano will have some help in trying to contain the Argentine star, but he will very likely be the person enlisted with trying to slow down the MLS assist leader.
5. Dane Richards vs. Gino Padula
The speedy Richards has stepped up his game in the playoffs, helping shred the vaunted Houston Dynamo defense, while also providing his share of defensive work in the Red Bulls' upset of Real Salt Lake. Against Columbus, Richards will be expected to get far more involved in the attack as he looks to exploit his matchup against Padula. The Argentine left back has been a steady contributor in the playoffs and won't be beaten easily, but Richards' speed makes every defender vulnerable, and the Red Bulls are going to need him to contribute if they are to complete this most improbable of MLS Cup runs.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.