There may not be a bigger mismatch on paper in the first round of the MLS playoffs than the Columbus Crew-Real Salt Lake series, but there is also no match brimming with more upset potential than this unique Eastern Conference clash.
With the memories of the New York Red Bulls' improbable run to the MLS Cup final last year still fresh, RSL is hoping to be this year's Cinderella story in MLS and it will have a path very similar to New York's if it can repeat the feat. Salt Lake is playing in the playoff bracket opposite of its own conference like New York, and like the Red Bulls, RSL must defeat the defending champions to keep the dream alive.
Columbus rolled to a second straight MLS Supporters Shield this season, but that doesn't mean there aren't chinks in the armor. The uncertain status of star Crew defender Chad Marshall raises the question of whether RSL might be facing Columbus at the right time, though it can't be forgotten that the Crew has shown impressive depth all season as it has dealt with key absences and injuries throughout the season.
RSL will look to unleash an offense that has looked unstoppable at times, while also trying to maintain the defensive discipline it will need to corral a Crew offense led by reigning MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Whether you think it will be an upset or not, this series should be entertaining and is probably the most likely of the four MLS first-round series to produce goals in bunches. Here is a closer look at the series, which begins today (6pm, Direct Kick).
TOP MATCH-UPS TO WATCH
Guillermo Barros Schelotto vs. Nat Borchers. Containing Schelotto is a team assignment and Borchers will receive plenty of help from Kyle Beckerman. Whether that will be enough to halt the Crew's creative maestro remains to be seen.
Robbie Rogers vs. Chris Wingert. There's no debating that when he's on his game, Rogers is one of the deadliest wingers in MLS, and it will be up to Wingert to keep him from dominating. Wingert is also capable of getting forward and making an impact.
Robbie Findley vs. Chad Marshall. If he is fully healthy and available, Marshall should have the tough task of corralling the speedy Findley, RSL's most dangerous attacking player. Marshall is coming off an extended absence though and it may fall to Danny O'Rourke to try and stay with the U.S. national team pool forward. If Findley gets going early, the upset could be in the cards.
Javier Morales vs. Brian Carroll. Morales had what could be best described as a disappointing season, but he's still a playmaker capable of threading nice passes if he's not marked tightly. Carroll is one of the more underrated players in MLS and must contain the Argentine to keep Real Salt Lake's offense from rolling.
Frankie Hejduk vs. Will Johnson. Hejduk has battled his share of injuries this season but remains a standout right back who should face a good test from young all-star Will Johnson. While Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman get plenty of attention, Johnson is quietly one of the most important players in RSL's attack and will need to win this match-up for RSL to have a chance for the upset.
Emmanuel Ekpo and Clint Mathis. Ekpo is a true game-changer with his speed and assortment of moves and he's the perfect second-half spark in midfield if he doesn't get the nod to start. Mathis is a wily veteran who has a history of stepping up in the playoffs. If he's given space, Mathis can still pull off some magic.
Columbus was the best team in MLS this regular season, but the Crew do not have the look of an unbeatable team. That, coupled with RSL's dangerous offense, give the underdogs a puncher's chance in a series that could very easily wind up as an upset.
Why won't it be? Ultimately, Columbus has the defensive components and mindset to prevent RSL from having one of its goal flurries. The Crew should frustrate RSL and punish Salt Lake on the counter. Schelotto is too crafty and the duo of Rogers and Eddie Gaven too tricky for Real Salt Lake to contain.
RSL will make it a series, and should find the net a few times, but Columbus is too deep and too good to fall in this first round series. We see Columbus rolling to a 3-2 aggregate victory.
What do you think of this series? Think Columbus is too strong, or do you see RSL pulling the upset?
Share your thoughts below.