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SBI MLS Playoff Preview: Columbus Crew vs. Real Salt Lake

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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).


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.


  1. RSL doesn’t have the “worst record in MLS” as you put it. They are the bottom seed in the playoffs. Which means of the teams in the playoffs they have the worst record, but they definitely aren’t the worst in MLS. This isn’t a match with #1 vs. #15. It’s #1 vs. #8. Which may or may not be a mismatch, but Columbus only won 2 more matches than RSL. So it’s not that big of a mismatch, but it might be the biggest in the playoffs.

    (SBI-That’s all I wrote to begin with, that it might be considered the biggest mismatch of the playoffs. This is what we’re talking about after all isn’t it? The playoffs.)

  2. When RSL is on their game, they are almost unstoppable at home. But, being RSL, they are very streaky and unpredictable. Considering they got into the playoffs on a prayer, I don’t have too high of hopes for RSL, especially when we play in Columbus. Should be interesting tonight either way.

  3. I’m looking forward to this matchup. RSL has the ability to derail Columbus’ plans for a repeat. Hopefully the fans show-up tonight because Rio Tinto is one of the prettier settings for a big game.

  4. RSL are the best home team in MLS and the Crew aren’t in particularly good form.

    I’d rate it close to even.

    Even using the word mismatch is a complete joke.

    (SBI-Jason, settle down. It’s MLS, there are no true mismatches in MLS, but is it really a “complete joke” to say that the match between the team with the best record in MLS and the team with the worst record in the MLS playoffs is the biggest mismatch in these playoffs? Not really.)

  5. I just don’t know what to think about the Crew… they didn’t impress me in the last couple games I watched but they are a great team clearly… I still see them making the MLS cup


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