The Columbus Crew and New England Revolution started the 2020 MLS playoffs outside the top two seeds in the MLS playoffs, but it shouldn’t be that surprising to find them preparing to face off in the Eastern Conference final.
The Crew finished as the third seed in the East, but spent a good amount of the months after the MLS is Back Tournament at or near the top of the Supporters’ Shield race, before a late-season slide caused by some key injuries cost them a chance at a top seed.
The Revolution spent most of the 2020 regular season without star playmaker Carles Gil, while fellow standout Gustavo Bou started just one of New England’s final eight regular-season matches due to injury, and those absences kept the Revs from posting a better record, though both are now back, healthy and back to their attacking best.
When the Crew and Revs meet on Sunday at Mapfre Stadium (3 p.m. ET, ABC), they will both enter in excellent form, having hit their strides at the perfect time.
The Revs are far more dangerous than their eighth seed would indicate. Gil and Bou returned from their respective injuries late in the regular season and have been at the forefront of New England’s march to the East final, which has included wins against Montreal, Toronto FC and Orlando City.
The Crew also saw two key starts miss considerable playing time in the regular season’s final months, with Darlington Nagbe missing eight straight matches at one point and Lucas Zelarayan being in and out of the lineup with various injuries.
The Crew did well to get healthy heading into the playoffs, but are now facing a brutal challenge of a COVID-19 outbreak that kept seven players out of the team’s win against Nashville SC, including starters Eloy Room and Derrick Etienne Jr. An eighth player tested positive after the win against Nashville, meaning the Crew could be missing another starter when they face New England.
If the Crew can avoid losing any more starters heading into Sunday, then the Eastern Conference final should be an open, attacking-heavy contest featuring top playmakers and strikers, as well as two coaches that know what it takes to win an MLS Cup title.
Here is a closer look at Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final:
The Revolution and Crew did not meet this season.
Players to Watch
The USMNT striker has been the Crew’s best player in the playoffs, and has scored in three straight matches. His movement will be a problem for the Revs defense, as he looks to stretch New England’s centerbacks by floating to the wings and attacking the spaces left open by the Revs fullbacks, who like to get forward.
The Spanish playmaker has been key to the Revs attack, and while Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa have also been excellent, it is Gil who sets the tone for Bruce Arena’s offense. He will face a good test on the right wing from Crew fullback Milton Valenzuela.
Matchup to Watch
ADAM BUKSA vs. JONATHAN MENSAH
The Polish striker has helped give the Revs attack an ideal target player for Bou to work off, and for Gil to target with service, but Mensah has been one of the best defenders in MLS this season and if he can contain Buksa then the Revs attack could struggle to generate chances.
The young Costa Rican winger stepped in for Derrick Etienne Jr. and enjoyed a standout performance against Nashville SC, and with Etienne set to miss Sunday’s match, Diaz will be called upon to provide some balance on the right wing.
One of the biggest revelations of the MLS playoffs, Buchanan has emerged as a dangerous threat as an attacking right back, wreaking havoc on opposing defenses as his speed combines with Carles Gil’s playmaking on the right flank. The Crew have a formidable left flank with Valenzuela and Pedro Santos though, so that matchup will be one of the most important ones on Sunday.
The East final is very much a toss-up, as much as the Crew is the higher seed and is at home. The expected absence of Eloy Room in goal, along with another match missed by Etienne Jr., gives the Revs a big advantage in goal, where Matt Turner is an elite-level goalkeeper.
Caleb Porter and Bruce Arena are two coaches that know how to neutralizing opposing weapons, so expect Porter to devise an effective plan to slow down Tajon Buchanan’s contributions from the right back spot, while Arena will focus on limiting the service received by Zardes, who he once coached with the LA Galaxy.
What are the weak links to try and exploit? Arena will look at Crew centerback Josh Williams as the weak link in the Columbus back-line, and if Mensah is focused on containing Buksa, then Bou could be matched up against Williams in a clash the Revs would love to see.
As for the Crew, Zardes had success spending time shading to the left wing, where the Revs could lave space to operate if Buchanan is pushed forward the way he has been all playoffs. That will require Andrew Farrell to provide support out wide, which could allow Lucas Zelarayan to exploit any gaps left by rookie defender Henry Kessler.
The chess match between Porter and Arena will bear watching, particularly once they turn to their halftime adjustments, which is an area where they both thrive. The Revs have more bench options due to the Crew’s Covid-19 outbreak, but the Crew showed against Nashville that they have enough of their core lineup to still pull off an effective rotation.
The difference maker in this one could be Darlington Nagbe, who is capable of controlling the middle of the park, and if he can help neutralize Bou and Gil, then the Revs will see their playoff run end.
Of course, the Revolution have the ultimate wild card in Matt Turner, who is capable of carrying the Revs defense if need be. It is a safe bet he will be busy on Sunday, and if Turner can turn in an elite-level performance, then the Revs can absolutely pull off another road playoff win and book their place in the MLS Cup final.