The 2008 MLS Cup Final is set. After 30 regular season games and two rounds of playoffs, two teams are left standing. The Columbus Crew will meet the New York Red Bulls at the Home Depot Center on November 23rd and play for the MLS Cup.
I'll recap the playoff semifinals and give you an in-depth preview of the season finale.
Eastern Conference Final: Chicago at Columbus
Here's what I predicted: Chicago wins a tight one 3-2 thanks to their trio of McBride, Blanco, and Chris Rolfe.
Here's what actually happened: Well, I wasn't completely wrong, and I can't stress that enough. While Chicago actually lost the game by the score of 2-1, Brian McBride gave Chicago a brief lead with one of his trademark headers. And Columbus did score two goals.
I've got to give a mention to David Wilson, who not only predicted Columbus would win, but nailed the final scoreline as well. Top shelf stuff, David, well done.
But Chicago's potent offense abandoned them at the worst possible time. They managed eight shots, compared to Columbus' five, but only one Fire shot found the back of the net. To add insult to injury, the Columbus crowd booed McBride, their former standout, every time he touched the ball.
"The fans can react however they want," McBride told ESPNsoccernet.com. "It doesn't change the fact I enjoyed my time here with the city and the organization." How quickly Crew fans have forgotten the 62 goals McBride netted for the club during his time in Columbus.
While the hometown fans were on McBride, they also had every reason to cheer on their own team.
Defender Chad Marshall opened Columbus' account just four minutes into the second half on a set piece orchestrated by the Crew's Argentinian star Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Schelotto had a hand in setting up Columbus' second goal just six minutes later as he headed to Alejandro Moreno, who headed to Eddie Gaven, who slotted the ball home for the game-winning goal.
Thanks to Schelotto, who should win the league MVP unless voters have been living under a rock for most of the season, Columbus is advancing to their first ever MLS Cup Final.
Western Conference Final: New York at Salt Lake
Here's what I predicted: At this point in the playoffs, I don't think we can expect the upset bug to strike twice in a row. New York wins this one in extra time, 2-1.
Here's what actually happened: I missed the final scoreline, but New York did end up winning by a single goal, 1-0. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that New York has now won two straight playoff games, on the road, when they only managed a single road victory during the regular season.
New York's dangerous Dutchman Dave Van den Bergh scored the game's lone goal in the 28th minute, silencing a crowd of just over 20,000. From then on, it was up to New York to simply find a way to hold on.
"Hold on" is the perfect way to describe what New York managed to do. The Red Bulls weathered an incredible 24 shots and six corners from their hosts in keeping a clean sheet. Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course. Salt Lake's Javier Morales hit the post with a shot in the fourth minute of stoppage time, a mere 20 seconds before Jair Marrufo blew the final whistle.
This was football at its finest. One team desperately hoping for a late equalizer while the other frantically defends, desperate for their first birth in an MLS Cup Final.
New York's suddenly stout defense has led them to two straight playoff victories. Juan Carlos Osorio will be hoping he can coax an excellent performance out of his team for a third straight match.
2008 MLS Cup Final: New York vs. Columbus at the Home Depot Center
Season series: New York won the season series 2-1-0
Series overview: This is a tough series to predict. We've got two newcomers to the MLS Cup Final facing off. We've got the winners of the Supporters' Shield against a team who barely made it into the playoffs. We've got a team who was the model of consistency during the regular season against a team who beat them twice, scoring five goals in those two games.
You can expect the unexpected next Sunday.
Columbus rides in full of momentum having just dispatched the second-best team in the East and a trendy upset pick in the Chicago Fire. New York could have been playing the "we're just happy to be here" card the whole time, but haven't looked like it in dispatching the defending MLS champion Houston Dynamo and playoff newcomers Real Salt Lake.
Here's what Columbus must do to win:
- Guillermo Barros Schelotto must show up. As Schelotto goes, so goes the Crew. He's been their best player this season and is one of the best distributors in MLS history. If Columbus want to score goals, Schelotto is the man that will be setting them up. His 19 regular season assists on 50 Crew goals (just shy of 40%) would seem to back that up.
- Contain Juan Pablo Angel. Angel will be one of the most dangerous men on the field next weekend. He can score from distance, he can tap in rebounds, and he can just be a general nuisance for defenses everywhere. Angel brings plenty of big-time experience to New York and must be stopped if Columbus is to win. In three games against Columbus this season, Angel has three goals.
- Win the goalkeeping battle. New York rookie netminder Danny Cepero made his MLS debut on Oct. 18th against the Crew. When the dust cleared 90 minutes later, Cepero had scored one of New York's three goals in a 3-1 victory. Keep Cepero off the scoresheet.
Here's what New York must do to win:
- Get solid defensive play. New York has looked better in the last two games than they have all season, and it's started with defense. They've gotten two straight clean sheets from Danny Cepero and have been very successful with a "bend, not break" philosophy in back. Columbus boasts a strong offense, so the New York back line will need to be ready.
- Dave Van den Bergh must play well. While JP Angel is obviously the big name on New York's roster, Van den Bergh's play is a very good barometer of how New York will fare in a given match. When he makes an impact offensively, good things happen for the Red Bulls. If Van den Bergh steps up, Columbus will have to account for multiple offensive threats and could be stretched out at the back.
Prediction: New York has had a wonderful playoff run, but I suspect that they may be running out of gas. Columbus finished with the best record in a strong conference for a reason, and will put the finishing touch on their great run next Sunday. Expect a resounding 3-1 victory for the Crew as they hoist their first ever MLS Cup.