Columbus Crew SC's Kei Kamara, New York Red Bulls' Matt Miazga continue season-long duel in MLS Cup Playoffs

COLUMBUS, Ohio – As far as Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs matchups go, it doesn’t get much better than Kei Kamara – Crew SC’s 22-goal scorer and emotional pulse – against Matt Miazga – the 20-year-old Homegrown central defender who’s made waves this year with the New York Red Bulls and, in the past week, the United States national team.

Though the Red Bulls hold a two-win, one-loss edge in the teams' three regular-season games this year, the pair faced off in only two of them, splitting the games 2-1, each side winning at home with Kamara picking up two assists in the only 2015 meeting at MAPFRE Stadium.

On Sunday, they’ll be back at it in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championships (5 pm ET; ESPN, ESPN Deportes and Sirius XM FC Channel 85), pitted against each other with a place in MLS Cup on the line.

Miazga, who’s been lauded for shutting down the likes of David Villa, Jozy Altidore and a laundry list of others during New York’s Supporters’ Shield-winning season, knows he’s got his work cut out for him, especially within the confines of the 18-yard box, where Kamara’s proven nearly unstoppable in his second stop in Columbus.

“He’s just a physical presence, a great athlete,” Miazga told “You have to be aware of where he is and make sure he doesn’t get a step on you. In general, you have to be aware of him when he’s in the [penalty area]. I think most of his goals came in the box, and he’s obviously a physical presence in the air as well … I have to try to do my job and contain him, but it’s going to be a hard job.”

Not lacking for confidence after scoring twice to end the Impact (and idol Didier Drogba’s) season in the semifinals, Kamara is complimentary of his young counterpart, though isn’t shy about the fact that he considers himself a matchup nightmare and MLS’ most dominant aerial presence.

“Miazga is a good young player,” Kamara said in an interview with ExtraTime Radio this week. “The last time we played here in Columbus, it was a good battle. He’s a big guy; I’m a big guy. He wants to go in for a lot of stuff, and I respect that.”

Despite the fact that Kamara hasn’t scored against the Red Bulls this season – the only Eastern Conference team he failed to find the back of the net against in 2015 – New York aren’t lacking in the respect department either.

“He’s probably the best athlete in the league – very good at winning foot races, head balls. Obviously, in the box, he does a great job of getting on the end of things,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said. “He’s fit their system perfectly … Him not scoring against us, I don’t put much into that. I think it’s more luck than anything.

“We know that on the day a big part of being successful against their attack is identifying where he is, specifically when the ball goes wide and being ready for crosses. Our center backs will be up for the challenge, and it will be great matchup to watch.”

Even more so because Miazga and Ronald Zubar will have to combat Kamara’s physical, relentless game knowing a single yellow card will rule them out for the return leg at Red Bull Arena.

“Obviously, I have to be cautious and aware in certain situations, but at the end of my day I’m just going to go out and do my job,” Miazga said. “The yellow is not going to restrict me from doing the things I have to do. If I get a yellow, I get a yellow.”

Of course, even a slightest hint of caution or hesitation is liable to give Kamara all the room he needs to give Columbus a crucial goal in the two-leg aggregate series.

That’s a balancing act Miazga and Zubar will have to weigh minute by minute and challenge by challenge. With starter Damien Perrinelle out with a long-term knee injury, the Red Bulls can ill afford to have both center backs ruled out via yellow-card accumulation for what will be the biggest game of the season.

“We’ll try to let the referee know, to remind him that they’re on yellows and to give them a little bit of a break,” Marsch said. “But you have to expect that in a tough matchup with Kamara that if they’re not physical, they can get burned. It’s important for them to stay committed to the physicality.”