Sunday’s semifinal action gets underway with a pair of Eastern Conference rivals doing battle at MAPFRE Stadium.
In what will be their first playoff duel since the 2015 MLS Semifinals, the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew will be seeking strong performances in order to advance to the Conference Final. 20 points separated these teams in the regular season, which saw the Red Bulls lift the Supporters Shield and the Crew use a penalty kick shootout to advance out of the knockout stage.
Here’s a closer look at this playoff series:
The Crew won the regular season series, defeating the Red Bulls 3-2 in N.J. in July. This came over a month after the sides drew 1-1 at MAPFRE Stadium, where the Red Bulls haven’t won since 2015.
Players to Watch
Red Bulls: Bradley Wright-Phillips – Age has not hurt BWP’s numbers at all in MLS, with the English striker scoring 20 goals in 2018. It was his third-ever season with 20 or more goals which proved he can still get the job done up top. Despite only one goal in his last three appearances of the season, look for Wright-Philips to steal the show for NYRB.
Columbus Crew: Gyasi Zardes – After only 15 goals in his last three seasons, the 27-year-old Zardes led the Crew with 19 in 2018. He came up huge on the biggest game of the season for Columbus, scoring a hat trick in their regular season finale, a 3-2 triumph over Minnesota United.
Matchup to Watch
Wil Trapp vs. Kaku
Both Trapp and Kaku have had strong seasons for their respective teams and this matchup will be key if each team wants to have success.
We all know about Wright-Phillips and Zardes, but a lot of the match will be played through this duo. Trapp has continued to blossom into one of the top No. 6’s in MLS and will need to shine bright for the Crew in the postseason. At 25, Trapp made 31 appearances for Gregg Berhalter’s team being influential in their defensive set-up. His work ethic is second to none while his ability to shut offensive opponents down is impressive.
Kaku has truly been an underrated player in his debut MLS campaign, scoring six goals and tallying 14 assists. He added spark to the traditional Red Bulls attack, showing skill and versatility in every match. Kaku is able to play out wide, but has found much more success in the middle of the field. A lot of the creativity comes through the Argentine who has planted a nice seed for the future in 2018.
Red Bulls: Daniel Royer – After just one goal in six matches played in 2016, Royer has scored 23 over the past two seasons providing a nice second option to BWP. The Austrian is a gamechanger on the pitch and provided technical ability inside of the offensive end, while giving a high energy rate overall. If BWP cannot get things going, look for Royer’s role to increase in the series.
Columbus Crew: Justin Meram – The return of Justin Meram to the Crew certainly adds a player who knows his way with the team. After just two goals in his last two seasons, the 29-year-old returned to the Crew after a falling out with the Lions. Meram adds experience to the bunch but also is a player who isn’t afraid to try new things. His role in the playoffs will increase as the Crew try to be multi-dimensional.
After some thrilling encounters in the regular season, this series has the ability to be a nail biter down to the final minute. Both teams will seek a strong opening leg before the series switches to Red Bull Arena in a week’s time.
For New York, they need to play their game and try to use their skillful players in all phases. Luis Robles can still come up big performances when it’s needed and has been a clutch performer come playoff time. Centerbacks Aaron Long and Tim Parker have been the best tandem in MLS in 2018 and will have another chance to prove that as they try to quiet down a rejuvenated Zardes and Co. Tyler Adams and Kaku headline the midfield with their energy and versatility while Royer and BWP lead the attack.
As for the Crew, Zack Steffen was a huge performer in Thursday’s shootout win over D.C. United. The U.S. Men’s National Team keeper is one of the best in the league and will need to be vocal with a backline that leads by example. Jonathan Mensah will have the tough test of quieting BWP while Harrison Afful is always a threat on the wings. Artur and Trapp have been a terrific pairing as the defensive midfielders and will be key if the Crew can avoid being eliminated. Federico Higuaín will run the show offensively, creating chances not only for himself but his teammates. Zardes has the chance to show his talents on the country’s biggest stage again and will need to be strong against a tough backline.
This series may not have the glitz and glamour that the rest of them do, but it surely will be a slugfest between these two rivals.