There are too many variables to consider when assessing whether Columbus or New York holds the upper hand for their meeting Sunday in MLS Cup 2008 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC and TeleFutura).
They are both comfortable in their skins, playing efficient and effective soccer, and aren't likely to conjure up radical wrinkles just because they're in the final. They know each other well, but far more importantly, they know what they do well and why they win.
"Normally, if you're taking, if you're scoring a lot of goals, then you're usually taking a lot of goals also or vice versa," says Crew defender Frankie Hejduk, trying to explain how coach Sigi Schmid transformed a sub-.500 team into this year's Supporters' Shield winner. "If you're not scoring, if you're not taking as many goals, you're not scoring as many goals. But this team has just been an incredibly balanced team, both offensively and defensively, and Sigi's really instilled that in us, especially this year."
The Crew scored more goals and allowed fewer than New York during the regular season; the Red Bulls won two of the three regular-season meetings, but one of those games was played seven months ago. In the other, Columbus rested six starters.
In its victory back in September, Columbus pounded New York 3-1. Shortly after that match, New York head coach Juan Pablo Osorio benched three of his four midseason foreign signings to go with younger players.
So really none of the three regular-season meetings is of any real use in forecasting the final, which is as it should be. Some angles may be somewhat esoteric, but in a final that matches up the league's smallest market against its biggest, and the top seed against the bottom feeder, subtleties may reign supreme.
New York has the prized Colombian finisher, Juan Pablo Ángel, who can turn the most mediocre service into a dangerous chance. Mexican center back Diego Jiménez is the only one of the midseason quartet to keep his spot, and if defender Jeff Parke hadn't been suspended by the league, who knows if he'd be out there. Osorio has used Juan Pietravallo and Jorge Rojas off the bench in the playoffs and may need their experience.
Columbus relies on MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto as its attacking catalyst, and fellow Argentine left back Gino Padula to balance out the wild, headlong rushes of Hejduk on the right. Up front, Venezuelan striker AlejandroMoreno led the team with nine goals and has formed a telepathic partnership with Schelotto that often befuddles defenses that can't decide if Moreno is the target or the decoy. The answer? He's both.
Playing in an MLS Cup is a new deal for many of the participants. Schelotto and Ángel have played in dozens, if not hundreds, of pressure games. How their younger domestic teammates fare may dictate the outcome.
Former holding midfielder Danny O'Rourke is a reliable center-back partner for Chad Marshall, who ended '07 on season-ending IR but has blossomed into a spirited, dominant leader. Their timing and cohesion will be essential to control Ángel, and provide cover if wide midfielders Dave van den Bergh or DaneRichards breach the flanks.
The enigmatic Eddie Gaven, who started his career with New York, is finally forging his potential in his sixth pro season, and scored the dramatic game-winner against Chicago in the conference final. Gaven patrols the right side of midfield; on the left, Robbie Rogers can speed into spaces and either go for goal or cut the ball across. If asked to track back to contain the Red Bulls' wide players, as they did effectively against Chicago, it may impair them offensively.
Rookie Luke Sassano and second-year pro Sinisa Ubiparipovic have anchored the central midfield for New York but both hobbled off in the Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake. They are not particularly elegant, but honest workers and decent passers. If Rojas starts in place of Ubiparipovic, the Red Bulls must adjust their monitoring of Schelotto and also keep an eye on Brad Evans, who likes to lance forward in Schelotto's wake to hit shots and through balls.
Mike Magee scored five goals in 26 games (18 starts) this season and gives Osorio another offensive option. Left back Kevin Goldthwaite played the most minutes of his four-year MLS career (2,438) and every minute in the playoffs.
Red Bulls goalie Danny Cepero, 23, has just five MLS games on his resume, but he's a quick, fearless, athletic keeper with good hands. A few flubs in the 3-0 win over Houston didn't cost him and he played a nearly error-free game against Real Salt Lake. Both of those games were on the road in front of sellout crowds. He might get rattled Sunday but is more likely to relish the occasion and play off the charts. If the goalposts are as good to him as they were last week, Columbus has no chance unless it gets to the rebounds.
Will Hesmer, 27, played a few games for Kansas City in '06 and 20 games with Columbus last year, so all of his playoff experience has come in the last three games. As goalie of the team expected to win, he'll have tons of pregame pressure to handle, and one strength of the Red Bulls is they can test the keeper in many ways. Columbus hasn't dealt well with the surface and dimensions at Home Depot Center this season; it conceded five goals in games against Chivas USA (0-2) and the Galaxy (3-3).
This is Hejduk's first MLS Cup, but he has played in Gold Cups and World Cups and played collegiately at UCLA. Unless he gets too pumped up, he'll shine. Brian Carroll helped D.C. United win MLS Cup '04, in his rookie season, and has been outstanding this year as the midfield linchpin.
This is John Wolyniec's third go-around in New York; he started his career in 1999 with the MetroStars, and then played for, in order, Chicago, New England, the MetroStars, Columbus, Los Angeles and the Red Bulls. He's not a big talent, but he plays with a big heart. Right back Chris Leitch is also an ex-Crewman ('02, '06) who has been around a while and has peaked in the playoffs; can he contain Rogers and whatever else Columbus sends down his flank?