The first ticket to the 2008 MLS Cup final will be punched tonight when the Chicago Fire face the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final.
Two of the best teams in MLS all season, the Crew and Fire both bring in loaded lineups in a match-up that is difficult to predict the outcome of. Several of the league’s best midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers will be on display in tonight’s showdown at Crew Stadium.
There is plenty of material out there previewing tonight’s match. Here are some recommendations:
The Chicago Tribune’s Luis Arroyave has a good piece on Wilman Conde. Conde was rather calm in his explanation of his position, but I will say that when I spoke to him in September he sounded like a player who expects to either get a significant pay raise OR a transfer to Mexico or Europe. Sources tell me some Mexican clubs have already expressed interest.
Luis also had a nice comparison of the star playmakers for both teams, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
The Columbus Dispatch’s Shawn Mitchell offered up an East Final preview earlier in the week, while also providing a Crew-centric take on tonight’s match in today’s Dispatch.
Now, here is SBI’s detailed breakdown on what you should expect to see tonight:
Here is how the teams are likely to line up tonight:
Here are the top match-ups to watch:
Marshall vs. McBride– The league’s best defender against a dangerous veteran in McBride, who will look to occupy Marshall and let his teammates go after a Crew defense that can be beaten. Even if Marshall wins this battle, his teammates will need to step up big. If Marshall struggles and McBride wins this battle, the Crew will be in trouble.
Conde vs. Schelotto– The Fire know full well how important Schelotto is to the Crew attack so look for Conde, arguably the most talented defender in MLS, to shadow him and look to shut him down. Conde will do his best, but Schelotto is skillful enough to burn any defense with a well-timed pass.
Rolfe vs. Rogers– It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the player who outperforms the other here will lead his team to victory. Rolfe has been red-hot while Rogers should find a good target to go after in Prideaux. Rolfe will need to track back and offer some support, but he is also too important to the Fire attack to spend too much time in the defensive third.
Hejduk vs. Mapp– One guy is Mr. Energy, the other is Mr. skill (and lack of energy). Will Mapp be able to get going against Hejduk or will Hejduk outwork him and neutralize Mapp? You have to like Hejduk in this match-up, but Mapp just might remind us why he was so highly-regarded in the first place.
Gaven vs. Segares– Much like the above match-up, this one features skill against energy (though Segares is pretty skilled in his own right). Gaven needs to go right at Segares and not only test him defensively, but keep Segares from getting forward on the counter. You have to like Segares in this one, but as I said, the above match-up and this one are a lot alike so maybe Gaven rekindles some of that magic from his teen years.
Blanco vs. Carroll/O’Rourke– Dealing with Cuauhtemoc Blanco isn’t something one person can do so look for both Brian Carroll and Danny O’Rorke to work together to try and neutralize Blanco, who floats up up near the forward line while also spending plenty of time further back. With Marshall there to deal with McBride, O’Rourke must rotate between helping out Gino Padula as well as Carroll. I actually don’t see Blanco having a major impact in the match because the Crew will make sure to keep bodies on him wherever he goes.
The game will hinge in large part on possession and which central midfield can control more of the ball. Sure, both wings are dangerous, but the number of chances each team gets will ultimately come down to their midfields being able to win the possession battle. It’s such a close match-up in the middle that picking a winner is tough.
I will be picking the Fire, and not because Columbus isn’t a good team, but because Chicago’s defense is stronger and capable of neutralizing the Crew’s vaunted attack. Unless Rogers can abuse Prideaux like Dane Richards did Wade Barrett in the New York-Houston series, I don’t see Columbus creating enough chances. Rolfe, Conde and Thorrington are the stars as Chicago pulls out the win.
What do you see happening? Share your thoughts on tonight’s Eastern Conference final in the comments section below.