New England vs. New York: Key Issues and Decisions That Will Shape MLS Game
The first spot in the 2014 MLS Cup Final will be handed out Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, when the New England Revolution host the New York Red Bulls.
Jay Heaps' Revolution hold a 2-1 advantage on aggregate after netting two away goals at Red Bull Arena in the first leg Sunday.
As if New York needed something else to not go in its favor, it will be without Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips due to a yellow-card suspension he picked up in the first leg.
Here's a look at the key issues and decisions that will shape this MLS playoff match.
Who Scores the 1st Goal
Scoring the first goal in Saturday's second leg is crucial for both sides.
If New England finds the back of the net first, it will open up a 3-1 lead on aggregate, and it will force New York to score three unanswered goals in order to advance to MLS Cup.
On the other side of the coin, New York would put the hosts on edge by finding the back of the net first. An away goal would level the series on aggregate at 2-2.
With every goal it scores counting more in the second leg, New York should look to press for the opening strike.
The opening goal will also hand the scoring team a ton of momentum in a game that is expected to be tense from the start. As we saw in the first leg, the Revolution gained a dominant hold on the game thanks to a 17th-minute strike from Teal Bunbury.
Mike Petke's Tactical Adjustment
The Red Bulls will be without star forward Bradley Wright-Phillips in the second leg due to a yellow-card suspension, which means they need to find someone to replace his contributions up front.
The most logical alteration to the New York lineup would be the insertion of Tim Cahill, who has not played a key role in the postseason so far.
Some type of combination up top of Cahill and Thierry Henry would give Mike Petke's side the best chance to steal a victory at Gillette Stadium. If the Australian is to enter the starting 11, Petke will likely shift his formation as well to get the best out of his attack.
An ideal formation for New York would be a 4-4-2 with Cahill and Henry starting at the forward position. Both players would have the chance to drop back and make runs off each other in an attempt to unlock the New England defense.
If this is the formation Petke opts to go with, he would have to employ Peguy Luyindula or Eric Alexander on the left wing, which is where Henry has started in the 4-2-3-1 used in the first four playoff games.
Henry could move out to the left wing at some point, but both Alexander and Luyindula are capable of providing pace to the attack as well.
Eric Alexander's Containment of Lee Nguyen
One of the things Petke has to keep in mind when adjusting his lineup is the performance of Alexander in the first leg.
The 26-year-old midfielder silenced Most Valuable Player candidate Lee Nguyen for 76 minutes before he left the pitch in favor of Cahill.
In the time Alexander was off the pitch, the Revolution netted the key second away goal in the 86th minute thanks to the distribution skills of Nguyen.
For the Red Bulls to have a chance of coming back from their deficit Saturday, Alexander must be given the opportunity to mark Nguyen once again.
Before the shift to the 4-2-3-1, Alexander started on the left wing. But he has become a more effective player since his shift to the middle of the park.
If Alexander is able to contain Nguyen once again, the experienced players in the New York attack will be handed a chance to pounce and score an away goal or two.
Jermaine Jones' High Level of Play
Jermaine Jones was not only the best player in the Eastern Conference Final first leg, he was the most influential player to step on a pitch in the league last weekend.
Jones helped New England control the possession battle, and he was able to surge forward to create plenty of moves in the attacking half.
His first-leg performance at Red Bull Arena was one of the best of the entire season in MLS, which is a high standard to live up to for the next 90 minutes of the series.
When he didn't storm forward, Jones made his presence known on the defensive side of the ball with a few strong challenges. He also went head-to-head with Thierry Henry on plenty of occasions out on the wing.
If Jones can maintain his extremely high level of play for the duration of the second leg, the Revolution will be heading out west to play in the MLS Cup Final.
Who Else Steps Up in the New England Attack
Jones and Nguyen have been the two stars of the Revolution attack in the postseason, but the role players around them have seen some success as well.
Charlie Davies and Teal Bunbury are heating up at the right time, while Kelyn Rowe has been effective as well even if his name hasn't been mentioned much.
Davies was responsible for scoring twice in the first leg against Columbus, while Bunbury has delivered a goal in the last two playoff games.
If the supporting cast can continue to contribute in the most important playoff game yet, it will take the pressure off the two star midfielders.
As we have seen in the first three New England playoff games, a lot of attacking magic can be produced by the Revolution when every player is performing to the best of their ability.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.