Columbus vs. New England: Key Issues That Will Shape MLS Conference Semifinal
The first of four two-legged conference semifinals in the Major League Soccer playoffs will get underway at Crew Stadium Saturday afternoon, as Columbus hosts New England.
The two Eastern Conference squads put together terrific ends to their respective seasons, and there is a strong case to be made that these are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.
If the last four regular-season matches between the two clubs are any indicator as to how this series will end up, we are in for a close battle to determine one of the two finalists in the East.
Here is a look at the key issues that will shape Saturday's first leg in Ohio.
Who Will Win the Lee Nguyen vs. Wil Trapp Battle?
One of the best individual matchups in the semifinal round across Major League Soccer will be the one between New England's Lee Nguyen and Wil Trapp of Columbus.
Nguyen scored 18 goals in the regular season, including nine of the game-winning variety. His game-winning goal total was the highest in the league, and it was three more than the trio of Dom Dwyer, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Gyasi Zardes had.
The midfielder is one of three favorites to win the Most Valuable Player award along with Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins, but now he has to prove himself in the postseason.
Succeeding in November will not be an easy task, especially against Trapp, who is one of, if not the, best young Americans in the league.
Trapp has formed a terrific defensive-midfield partnership with Tony Tchani, and the pair is capable of controlling the game through their passing and possession skills.
Nguyen will have to break the flow of Trapp, who averaged 67 passes per game and an 87.2 pass success rate during the regular season, to take the Crew out of their rhythm in attack.
Steve Clark's Play in Goal
One of the most underrated acquisitions of the offseason was Columbus' addition of Steve Clark.
Clark, who left Honefoss in Norway after four seasons to join the Crew, has thrived in between the pipes with eight shutouts and 111 saves in 34 games.
The 28-year-old has rarely made mistakes for Columbus this season, and he was a major reason why the Crew finished the regular season with five wins in six games.
During that six-game span, Clark saved 26 of the 32 shots fired at him. He also recorded two clean sheets against New England and Montreal to start the good run of form.
Since he has been tested in almost every match in the buildup to the postseason, Clark should not experience a drop in form against a team he has conceded only three goals to in 2014.
Chris Tierney's Left Foot
Whenever a crucial game is brought up in conversation, set pieces usually make their way into the discussion because of their mystical game-changing abilities.
The one player for New England who can change the game with one free-kick is Chris Tierney. The left-back has delivered some wicked set pieces throughout the season, including a stunning free-kick goal against Philadelphia on May 17.
Since his return to the lineup on September 26 after sitting out eight games with a knee injury, Tierney has earned two assists.
His main threat will come from set pieces, but he will also look to strike when moving forward on the left flank in attack.
If Tierney gets an opportunity to flick a ball into the box, do not be shocked if it creates a stellar chance on goal for Clark to deal with.
A Rested Federico Higuain
Since entering MLS in 2012, Federico Higuain has been spectacular after missing a game.
On four occasions, the Argentinian designated player has started a game after being an unused substitute. He has recorded three assists in those rare occurrences, and he put in a five-shot performance on July 12 against New York without contributing to a goal.
The only time he hasn't starred following a rest was June 4 against Real Salt Lake. In that match, Higuain played 44 minutes and took just one shot.
It just so happens that Higuain was left out of the season finale against Philadelphia to rest a hip strain, per Crew Insider Ryan Schwepfinger.
With a rested Higuain ready to pounce, New England's back four could be in for a long day if the Columbus playmaker continues his good form after missing matches.
Who Scores the Goals for Columbus?
Unlike most teams in the playoffs, the Crew do not carry a prolific forward on their roster, but they do have plenty of potential to score from other positions.
Higuain and Ethan Finlay each scored 11 goals during the regular season, which was three more than the forward duo of Jairo Arrieta and Aaron Schoenfeld had combined.
The good news for Gregg Berhalter's side is three of those eight goals came in the last two weeks.
Schoenfeld is a big target at 6'4", but he was not a consistent starter for the Crew until September. At 24, he lacks big-game experience, but he does have some confidence right now after scoring a brace against the Red Bulls two weeks ago.
Arrieta's only start in three months came Sunday against Philadelphia, but he was able to find the back of the net in the 2-1 win.
There is potential for Schoenfeld and Arrieta to take the pressure of the shoulders of Finlay and Higuain, but there is also a chance inexperience and rust could affect their play in the postseason.
The Performance of New England's Supporting Cast
Everyone knows about Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones in the New England midfield, but the true difference-makers Saturday could be the supporting cast in attack.
Joining Nguyen in the attacking part of midfield are Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez and Teal Bunbury, all of whom have contributed on some level in the goal department. Up front, the Revolution contain a healthy Charlie Davies and a young prospect in Patrick Mullins.
Those five players combined for 21 goals and 20 assists in the regular season, which means the Crew won't be allowed to focus in on just one player.
Fagundez and Rowe should start on the wings, while Davies or Bunbury will get the nod up front for Jay Heaps' side. If Heaps opts to go for an attack-minded lineup, he could align Nguyen with Jones in the middle of the park in place of Scott Caldwell to accommodate his productive bunch of attackers.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.