The Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution will open the conference semifinals of the 2014 MLS Playoffs at 4:00 PM on Saturday afternoon in Columbus. This is possibly the most intriguing series in the playoffs, with two of the hottest teams in the league going head-to-head.
The Black and Gold enter the game with three straight wins and only one loss in their last 11 games. A team that once seemed doomed for another playoff-less year, fought through the final portion of the season to climb to third in the East and avoid the knockout opening round of the playoffs.
The Revolution had a similar season, losing eight consecutive games in the summer, yet finished with 55 points and second in the East. They have one loss in their last 12 games to close out the regular season and are confident heading into the post season.
Here are some thoughts heading into the series.
These teams have grown rather familiar with each other, playing twice in just over a month. Which team do you believe that helps the most in this series?
The Bent Musket: Honestly, I don't think it helps anyone but the fact New England won the most recent matchup and Jermaine Jones played all 90 minutes and scored the winner in that game is a big deal. I will also say that of the three teams New England could've been matched up against going into the final weekend, I wanted to see the Crew the least since both New England and Columbus are red hot. The Revs only loss in the last 12 games - at Columbus on Sept. 20, only Crew loss in their last 8 was in New England on Oct. 4.
Massive Report: I believe this is going to be a bigger benefit to the Revolution. In the second meeting of the season, the first of the recent meetings, Jermaine Jones only played a half and Columbus won the game 1-0 and Jones was unable to make an impact. In the second game - the third game of the season - Jones started and played the full 90 minutes, scoring the winning goal.
New England saw the Crew at full strength in both of those meetings, while the Black and Gold only got experience playing against Jones-led Revolution team for 135 of the 180 minutes. I think this gives an edge in terms of preparation to the Revs because the staff and the players know what to expect of the Black and Gold a little bit more. Neither of these teams are going to change what they do, but that experience of playing against the best the Crew have to offer recently could be a factor in this series.
Which star has the bigger impact over the two legs, Federico Higuain or Lee Nguyen?
The Bent Musket: See, I think you spelled Tony Tchani wrong for the Crew. Because aside from Higuain's set piece goals (which he only scores on us mind you) I think the Revs have done a very good job of limiting his chances and Scott Caldwell in particular during the regular season. It's Tchani that's been killing the Revs as a playmaker from deep in the midfield, just go look at that pass to Ethan Finlay in the October game again and not marvel at how brilliant it had to be to beat Jose Goncalves who was in good position. At the end of the day though, Lee Nguyen's been the best midfielder in MLS this season and he's been carrying New England all year. If Nguyen doesn't impact this series in any meaningful way it will be another short postseason run for the Revs.
Massive Report: Assuming health, I think Federico Higuain has the bigger impact. The Crew's No. 10 was rested for the final game of the regular season after a hip strain, but should be good to go for this series.
In the three games played this year, Columbus has done a good job neutralizing Nguyen. He did score in the last meeting, but for the most part the Black and Gold have forced Nguyen to play with his back to goal and not allowed him to get into the spaces on the field in which he likes to play.
Meanwhile, Higuain seems to have knack for hurting New England. He scored twice this year against the Revs and always seems to find a way to get a dangerous set piece. Head coach Gregg Berhalter said earlier in the season that Higuain likes taking free kicks on turf and we saw that in the first meeting this year. In a two-game series with away goals as the tiebreaker, one free kick, especially in Gillette Stadium, could be a deciding factor.
Which player matchup are you most looking forward to watching in this series? Who has the edge in that matchup in your mind?
The Bent Musket: I have to break this into two parts, because one is based on both teams' formations and the other is about the goalkeepers. One of the reasons why I dreaded playing against the Crew is that I fear the "mirror matchup" that Columbus presents. What I mean is that both the Revs and Crew have similar traits, style, everything, at least in my opinion. Usually solid backline, dominant center midfield triangle, crafty wing play from the midfield or overlapping fullbacks and goal scoring threats that at times do not include the lone striker up front. Why does this bother me? I have no idea, but it's just nerve wracking this year and while I don't think the Revolution outright struggle against a similar play-style or formation, it just breeds a great brand of back-and-forth soccer that drives you crazy while watching it. You try and take Higuain or Nguyen out of the game and Tchani and Jones step up and kill you. Try to take away the wings and Eric Gerhig and Chris Tierney make an overlapping run and hit a perfect cross into the box. It's going to come down to who can make that perfect ball to break the defense (you did go and rewatch that Tchani-to-Finlay goal right?) or who can take advantage of set pieces first...or last depending on the clock.
Secondly, Steve Clark and Bobby Shuttleworth have both had really solid second halves of the regular season. Shuttleworth did not start off the season well and there were a lot of calls for Brad Knighton to get minutes even before the Revs midseason eight game skid. Clark has played every minute for the Crew and New England saw his potential first hand when he shut us out two months ago. Both keepers have similar GAA (1.25 for Bobby, 1.24 for Steve) and eight shutouts in 2014. Remember how I said this series was a "mirror-match?" Either one of these two keepers can shatter that with either lights out or awful performances, and judging by recent form, I'd be stunned if bad goalkeeping cost anyone in this series.
Massive Report: I'm excited to watch Tony Tchani and Jermaine Jones meet in the middle of the field. Tchani was not a fan favorite to start the year in Columbus, but Berhalter believed in him. As Tchani's game really began to rise, the Crew started to play better and that's not a coincidence. Jones had a similar impact when arriving in New England, helping the team to climb to second in the East and get the home field (if you can call it that in a two-leg series) in this game.
Fans of the Black and Gold saw first hand how this meeting might go in the lone contest in Columbus when Tchani made it his personal mission to ruin Jones' first MLS appearance in Crew Stadium. Revolution head coach Jay Heaps commented after the game that Crew players were targeting Jones and they obviously denied it. Tchani said the Jones matchup wasn't a big deal and the Black and Gold won't focus on any one player, but I don't believe him. I think he knows what Jones can do and what it would mean for him to be the one to shut down the American.
What non-marquee player or two from each team might have a big impact on this game?
The Bent Musket: The list for both of these teams is just too long since it's always such a team effort all around. Teal Bunbury has been one of my favorite Revs to watch since he moved out to right midfield/wing and it's not because of his offense but actually his defense. He tracks back more than I would've expected from a converted forward and has consistently impressed as a two-way player even if that's not what Revs fans expected him to be at the beginning of the season. As for Columbus, I remember Eric Gehrig rampaging down the right flank two months ago but it's unlikely that Diego Fagundez will be marking him again to start the game so I'll go with Justin Meram. The other winger opposite Finlay is also pretty good and rounds out the already really impressive midfielder for Columbus.
Also, keep an eye on the benches. Both Jay Heaps and Gregg Berhalter have a lot of talent that can't be in the starting lineups, with Diego Fagundez, Bernardo Anor, Hector Jimenez and Jairo Arrieta likely to have an impact regardless of if they start.
Massive Report: This is a difficult question to answer for either team because they both have players who can step up at any given moment. I'm going to go a little outside the box here and go with someone who may not show up on the stat sheet for New England, but could make an impact and that's Scott Caldwell. The box-to-box midfielder is just that and has demonstrated an ability to help neutralize the opposition's midfield in his young career. This could loom rather large in this series, as both teams live and die with their midfield play. If he can keep Higuain from having the impact he's capable of, Caldwell limits the damage in this game to help set things up for the home leg.
For the Black and Gold, does Ethan Finlay count as a non-marquee player any more? No, okay fine. I will go with Bernardo Anor. Anor may not start the game, but it is likely that he will play some part. The Crew's No. 7 can play a variety of positions, left back, left midfield, right midfield and can have an impact in each. Anor has demonstrated an ability to change a game with his left foot. He has a cannon and his ability to run at a defense, especially if he comes off the bench in the second half, could cause the Revolution issues.
Who will be the MVP of this series and why?
The Bent Musket: Of course I have to say Lee Nguyen. He's the MVP for the Revs and should be the MVP of the league as well. There's not a player more important to their club right now than Lee Nguyen is to the Revs and as far as I'm concerned that's what most valuable is. Now that he has Jermaine Jones in the midfield, it frees him up to stay forward and do what he does best - cause havoc and score goals. Lots of goals. The Revs are 14-1-2 when Lee has a goal or assist in 2014, which means if he's showing up on the score sheet, it probably means the Revs are winning.
Massive Report: If Columbus wins the series, I'm going to say Ethan Finlay will be the MVP. The third-year player had a breakout season and is looking to carry that into the post season. Teams have struggled to slow him down, literally. His speed has always caused issues, but now he is finishing and has become a good passer. He has really developed into a pretty complete player and is hard to defend.
If New England are the winners, I think it could only be Lee Nguyen or Jermaine Jones. Those two players may be two of the three most talented players on the field and they should demonstrate that in this series. Jones has proven on the global stage that he can change a game on the offensive and defensive side and although this is his first MLS playoffs, he should be impactful. Nguyen had such a great year for the Revolution it would be difficult for me to see him disappointing in the playoffs. Like Finlay, Nguyen really broke out this year and should carry that into the playoffs. If his team wins, he is likely the reason why.
The Bent Musket: I would never predict a road playoff win in a two-legged series, but I'll settle for a draw in Columbus, maybe 1-1.
Massive Report: Let's say the Black and Gold take it 2-1 in this first leg.