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MLS Eastern Conference Final: New England Revolution vs Columbus Crew

This Sunday, December 6th, the New England Revolution will take on the third seeded Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final. The Revolution are appearing at this stage of the competition for the first time since 2014. The Revs will be looking to mirror their success of six years ago, when they beat the New York Red Bulls 4-3 on aggregate over a two legged tie.

 

 

Some Old, Some New

 

The Revs still have plenty of experience left from their last significant run. Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell and Teal Bunbury all started both legs of the 2014 ECF. Based on the comments Bruce Arena made on Thursday while on 98.5 The Sports Hub, they should all get the nod again this time around.

 

 

Other players who featured in 2014 include backup goalkeeper Brad Knighton, Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe. Rowe and Nguyen each have the potential to feature as substitutes, while Knighton will be on the bench again on Sunday. Diego Fagúndez also played a role in the 2014 run, but he seems to have fallen out of favor with Bruce Arena and will likely be moving on from New England this offseason.

 

The experience of team veterans will help on Sunday, but the Revs are still standing in large part due to the play of fresh faces. The offense has relied heavily on the talented trio of Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa and team captain Carles Gil, all of whom have joined the club in the past two years. Defensively, 21-year-old Tajon Buchanan and 22-year-old Henry Kessler have emerged as standouts. 

 

Columbus Scouting Report

 

The Crew survived a controversial 2017 relocation attempt to emerge as one of the Eastern Conference’s best this season. Caleb Porter’s men boasted the East’s second stingiest defense in the regular season. They also feature a balanced attack that conjured up 36 regular season goals.

 

Gyasi Zardes leads the way in that department, having reached 15 goals after scoring in extra time against Nashville in the last round. Despite still being in his 20s, Zardes brings a wealth of experience to the Columbus front line. Fans of the national team will be very familiar with Zardes’ game. The striker has accumulated 56 caps and 12 goals for the United States since 2015. 

 

Midfielders Pedro Santos and Lucas Zelarayán both also pose real goal scoring threats. Zelarayán, who typically plays centrally behind Zardes, has scored six goals in 19 appearances so far this season. Santos, who is deployed as a left winger, is the real danger man for Columbus. The Portuguese international has scored eight goals and added seven assists in all competitions this year.

 

Revolution Game Plan

 

Given Bruce Arena’s allusion to an unchanged lineup, it is likely that the Revolution will deploy a similar strategy to the one that saw off Orlando last weekend. As the road team, look for the Revolution to set up defensively. In the last round, they combined a structured approach to defending with a free-flowing, counterattacking offensive philosophy that worked wonders. As they were last week, New England will be comfortable with allowing Columbus to have the majority of the possession. 

 

A key matchup for me with regards to how the game will unfold will be New England’s right hand side. Tajon Buchanan played a vital role in the Revs’ offense a week ago, combining well with Carles Gil down the right flank. However, the threat of Pedro Santos on the left wing may compromise Buchanan’s ability to replicate his offensive performance. If Buchanan is eager to attack and gets caught high up the pitch, Santos will be more than capable of making New England pay. I’d watch for one of the Revs’ defensive midfielders, Scott Caldwell or Matt Polster, to pay special attention to Santos, especially if New England is keen to generate offense from that right back position.

 

Matt Turner came up big when he was needed most against Orlando, stopping a penalty from Nani in the 74th minute. He may well be called upon to produce similar heroics against Columbus. New England has been solid defensively in the postseason, but the Crew have enough offensive weapons to generate their share of chances. When all else fails, it helps to have a backstop of Turner’s caliber to bail you out.

 

Predictions

 

This late into the playoffs, it goes without saying that just about anything can happen. 538’s model gives Columbus the slight edge with a 54% chance of advancing. With a shot at the title against Minnesota or Seattle on the line, tensions will be high on Sunday.

 

Both teams have looked strong in the playoffs to this point. New England has had to navigate a more difficult road. Columbus dispatched the sixth seed and the seventh seed, while the Revs had to overcome the first and fourth seed to get here. 

 

If the Revolution can withstand the Crew’s offensive pressure and get the ball to Carles Gil in space, they will have to feel good about their chances. Gil’s decision making and passing ability, along with the offensive talent he has alongside him, gives the Revs a chance to score against anyone in MLS. The route to success for the Revolution starts with limiting the Crew’s offensive threat. Considering the number of weapons they have, that is easier said than done. However, the same thing can be said about the front four of New England.

 

Considering how much is at stake, I would not be shocked if this ends up being a defensive battle. However, I am hoping that we get a chance to see two of the most potent offenses in the league go head to head.

 

When healthy, I like New England’s attacking group of Designated Players as much as any other trio in the league. For that reason I’m picking the Revs to advance, 3-2.

 

Make sure you tune into ABC at 3 pm on Sunday. This could be one for the ages.

 

– Andrew Fasciano (@afasc573)

 

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