Playoffs Scoreboard

Recap
Leg 1
11/23 FINAL
1LA
0SEA
RECAP
Recap
Leg 2
11/30 9:20pm
SEA
LA
ESPN
Western Conference Championship
Recap
Leg 1
11/23 FINAL
1NY
2NE
RECAP
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Leg 2
11/29 3:00pm
NE
NY
NBCSN
Eastern Conference Championship

Head-to-Head Breakdown: Colorado vs. Columbus

Matt Pickens is the hardest ‘keeper in the league to rate. He’s got a ring from last season, he’s got size, instincts, reflexes and good positional instincts, and he’s got an awesome beard. But he’s also prone to absolutely catastrophic errors like the one at Vancouver, or the home game against RSL in 2010. In all, he’s won more than he’s lost, but he does make Rapids fans a little bit nervous.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

When Will Hesmer came into the league, there were doubts. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the most athletic, and though his college career was great, he didn’t seem to be able to win the big one. Now he’s a guy with an MLS Cup and two Supporters’ Shields under his belt. Is he spectacular? No. But he rarely makes mistakes and always keeps his defense organized.

The loss of Anthony Wallace has been underrated. Not only has it deprived the Rapids of an overlapping threat, but it’s also shifted Drew Moor out of the central defense, where he was simply excellent in 2010. That’s forced the Rapids to scramble all year, and they’ve largely done well with it: Moor, Tyrone Marshall, Marvel Wynne and Kosuke Kimura are all true pros. The addition of Miguel Comminges at fullback has returned a bit of dynamism to the back line, and while they’re not quite at last year’s level, they’ve looked better recently.
 

 

DEFENSE

 

If the Crew are going to win, it’s probably going to come down to which Julius James shows up. The Trinidad and Tobago international has had the best year of his pro career and is capable of dominating performances. But he’s also capable of losing focus – and his man – as happened against Chicago last weekend. Chad Marshall remains a steadying influence next to him, while Chilean Sebastián Miranda has anchored the right flank well all year. Left back is a big of a question with Josh Gardner still learning the position, but the journeyman has largely acquitted himself well.

There’s no glossing over the loss of Pablo Mastroeni, who is still recovering from a concussion suffered against RSL two weeks back. But the Rapids still have Jeff Larentowicz, Brian Mullan and Jamie Smith, all of whom spread the ball around, can strike from distance and know how to get the job done in must-win games. Wells Thompson has had his finest season and could replace Mastroeni in the middle, or head coach Gary Smith could choose to go a more defensive route with Joseph Nane or Ross LaBaeux in that spot. There’s also the chance that he could move Sanna Nyassi to the wing and push Jamie Smith into the middle. Whatever the case, the Rapids have both talent and options.

 

MIDFIELD

Columbus were supposed to be in the beginning stages of a D.C.-esque multi-year rebuilding process. The reason they’re not is because guys like Emmanuel Ekpo and Rich Balchan stepped up and drove them through a torrid summer stretch. Unfortunately, Ekpo’s out serving a red card suspension and Balchan has missed most of the last three months with a recurring groin injury. That leaves questions in the central midfield – never a good thing against the defending champs. Dilly Duka could be the answer, re-opening the left flank for Robbie Rogers, while Eddie Gaven will do his usual top-notch job on the right. The question will be at d-mid, where neither Balchan nor Danny O’Rourke are 100 percent, and Kevin Burns has struggled.

The best forward pairing of 2009 and 2010 was Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. In 2011, they’ve been star-crossed. Casey’s been out since July after rupturing his Achilles, while Cummings has been a shadow of his former self, unable to get untracked all season in terms of finishing or creating for others. The rest of the guys – Macoumba Kandji, Caleb Folan, Quincy Amarikwa and Andre Akpan – have all had moments, but none of them have been dangerous consistently, and the Colorado offense has sputtered as a result. Nyassi could be a solution, though he’s hardly filled the nets himself.

 

FORWARDS

Designated Player Andrés Mendoza finished fourth in the league with 13 goals, and strike-partner Emilio Rentería actually had the better goals per 90 average. Because of injuries, they never really got that much time to gel on the field, but the numbers do speak volumes about what they’re capable of in the final third. Mendoza will pout if he doesn’t get enough service, and Rentería is prone to putting his head down and ignoring the options around him, but the reality is that these are guys who get the job done more often than not, and are potentially the best striker combo in the league. They’ll want to prove as much in Colorado.
 

 

Gary Smith hasn’t exactly pulled all the right strings this season, but he got his team into position to defend their title. And for whatever questions there are about what happened in 2011, there are none about how he handled the playoffs last year. He had his team humming, and let’s not forget that they beat this same Crew side on their way to the title.

 

COACH

The job Robert Warzycha’s done with this Crew side is vastly underrated. He’s kept valuable core pieces while acquiring a ton of young talent, transferred leadership responsibility to guys like Marshall, Hesmer and Gaven, and helped develop talents like Ekpo and Rentería. That said, his teams haven’t exactly lit it up in the playoffs, and this version may be a year away.
 

The Rapids have a bunch of experienced midfielders to bring in, though none is really a game-breaker. Defensively, they’re always one injury away from a catastrophe, as their CCL run showed. Up top they have numbers. In Kandji, they have a guy who got it done last year in the playoffs but who's not close to 100 percent yet, and Folan has largely been a disappointment. They may not have to dip into the bench, but if they do, they could have trouble finding answers.

 

BENCH

Columbus were as hard-hit by injuries as almost anyone this year, but for the most part just kept humming along thanks largely to the strength of their bench. They had a great draft, picking up contributors like Justin Meram, Bernardo Anor and Eric Gehrig. They also got big, bruising forward Tommy Heinemann from the lower divisions, and his energy and willingness to do the donkey work has given them options all year.
 

Thanks to altitude, snow and a terrace filled with one of the league’s more underrated supporters’ groups, the Rapids almost always have a pronounced home field advantage this time of year. Going from 900 feet (Columbus) to 5,200 feet (Commerce City) makes it very, very difficult for the body to get enough oxygen, especially in a game that could potentially go 120 minutes. The Crew struggled with that very element in the first leg of the 2010 Eastern Conference semis, a game that the Rapids won 1-0. It’s a real factor.

 

OVERALL

Neither side is exactly entering this game on a tear. Columbus are still trying to find their form from this past summer, and injuries have left them vulnerable in the midfield. But the potential of a five-headed attack of Gaven, Rogers, Duka, Rentería and Mendoza is hard to ignore, and in Marshall they’ll most likely have the best player on the field for either side – as well as a pronounced set-piece advantage. In a game that's very likely to come down to one goal, those seem to be bigger advantages than what the Rapids can call upon.