New York's shocking 3-0 playoff win at Houston on Sunday was nothing short of miraculous.
Not only was Houston:
-The two-time defending league MLS champion
-and had never lost a home playoff game
-and had lost only once at home all season...
And not only had New York:
-suffered five straight playoff series defeats
-had won only once on the road this season
-was starting its backup keeper Danny Cepero (salary: $12,900).
But the Red Bulls, thanks to play of the MLS Player of the Week Dane Richards and that underpaid keeper, delivered the playoff surprise of the league's 13-year history.
Only one obstacle remains preventing New York from reaching the MLS Cup for the first time, and that's Real Salt Lake. The Dave Checketts-owned club is in its' first ever playoffs, and will host the Western Confernce final in its spanking new Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday night at 9:30et on FSC.
Which team will move on to face Columbus in the 2008 MLS Cup on the 23rd? Here's a line-by-line preview.
RSL, 40 pts from 30 matches, 3rd West, TWTWT
New York, 39 pts from 30 matches, 5th East, TWLTW
The Salt Lake forwards vs. the Red Bulls' defense:
Yura Movsisyan and Clint Mathis vs. Kevin Goldthwaite, Andrew Boyens, Diego Jimenez, and Chris Leitch (and Danny Cepero). Movsisyan, a 2006 first-round draft pick, has become a folk hero to the RSL faithful, after scoring late winners to get RSL into the playoffs on the season's final weekend, and late in the club's first playoff leg vs. Chivas. A tireless worker, the 6-foot striker is extremely dangerous. Mathis may not go the full 90, but backup F Robbie Findley scored six for RSL this season. While the four-man New York backline allowed only a single goal to Houston over 180 minutes, the story of the Red Bulls' defense is Cepero. Thrust onto the field after Jon Conway's substance suspension, the Penn grad was nothing short of remarkable in making five superlative saves in Sunday's win. His play to deny Brian Ching a walk-in goal by hurdling the Houston striker to get the loose ball was amazing. Advantage: Push
New York's attackers vs. the RSL defense:
Juan Pablo Angel and John Wolyniec vs. Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, and Robbie Russell (and Nick Rimando). the idea that Angel would score vs. Houston was not a surprise. But Wolyniec with the dagger (and horrible Thriller dance)? That was a surprise. Fact is, since Jozy Altidore's departure, Woly, Mike Magee, and Mac Kandji have all had a shot up next to Angel, even if the role is to pull a defender or two away from the Colombian. What to make of the RSL defense? The team condeded 39 goals in 30 league games, putting RSL in the middle of the league in GA. Chivas scored two on the club in the first-round series. Olave hit the net twice this season. With some precision, the Red Bulls can shoot for the top corners, confounding the diminuative Rimando. Advantage: New York
Dave van den Bergh, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Luke Sassano, and Dane Richards vs. Dema Kovalenko, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Will Johnson. The outside NY middies are among the class of the league, but the real (and Real) pressure will be felt on Ubiparipovic and Sassano, two bench players that confounded Houston's talented midfield over the past two matches. Kovalenko, despite the notion that he's a softie, is extremely dangerous, and Morales finished the regular season second in league assists (15) behind Columbus' Schelotto (19). Johnson has a Goal of the Year candidate (as does Cepero). Advantage: RSL
Juan Carlos Osorio deserves all the credit for his club's dismantling of Houston. His pechant for tinkering worked to perfection (plus an outstanding performance by Cepero). Will JCO continue to keep his pricey summer acquisitions on the bench (where frankly they belong)? Jason Kreis has engineered a successful playoff run from his guys, who haven't lost in seven outings. Advantage: Push
How's this for a whopper? RSL has never beaten New York. The Red Bulls are 2-0-6 all-time vs. the Utahns. Short of that, there aren't too many other signs one way or another for these teams, one of which will be making their first MLS Cup appearance. A strong crowd is expected. Here's a telling stat, should the match go to penalites... Career MLS appearences: Rimando, RSL: 204. Cepero, NY: 4. RSL's playing at home, so... Advantage: RSL
New York does not have Jozy Altidore, Claudio Reyna, or Seth Stammler on its roster, but yet the club is one win away from it's first MLS Cup. RSL has it's brand new digs, but their fans really need a few more years of suffering before reaching the top. The title match has one original 1996 club taking part. There'll be two. Angel and Van den Bergh for NY, Andy Williams off the bench for RSL. New York WINS, 2-1.
Required reading before the match:
NY Times: Red Bulls Have Appeal in a Bearish Economy
NY Times.com: Red Bulls Prepare for Next Turn in Unlikely Playoff Ride
NJ Herald News: These Fans are Running With the Bulls
American Soccer News: Can New York Do the Unthinkable?
Soccer America: Storybook Teams Clash in Splendid Setting
Salt Lake Tribune: RSL, NY Linked by Love, Hate
The Offside: How They Stack Up: RBNY@RSL
BigAppleSoccer.com: A Load Of Bull
I'll be taking in the match at Nevada Smiths, 3rd Avenue between 11th/12th in Manhattan. Please join me. Hope to see you there.