They'll be at each others' throats once the whistle blows Sunday, but Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls were full of kind words for one another in a conference call with the media Wednesday.
As they prepare to clash in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship (5 pm ET, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes in US, TSN Go, MLS LIVE in Canada), the East's final two survivors recognize in their opponent many of the qualities that fuel their own success. Both display a team-first ethos, commitment to an assertive tactical mindset, and both credit effective organizational cultures for their achievements.
“We have a ton of respect for them,” said Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty, praising Crew SC's high-octane passing style. “The way that they play and the way that they're coached, I think everyone can admit that it's great for our league. It's certainly something that I've been impressed with throughout their two years [under coach Gregg Berhalter]. The way that they play with the ball is something that every team should strive to be like. They're very dangerous in a lot of different ways.”
Berhalter's effusive tribute to the ferocious pressing game that won New York a second Supporters' Shield in three seasons suggested that the feeling is mutual.
“Red Bull has certainly done a great job of having a style of play and sticking to their style of play, and the style of play being successful,” said the former LA Galaxy defender. “I have a lot of admiration for what they've done this year. When you see opponents' passing possession percentage in their own half, it's extremely low, and that shows that they're executing their game plan.”
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch has earned a Coach of the Year nomination for his contributions to a dramatic offseason makeover that pushed the club to new heights despite the departure of big-name stars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. He sees many similar elements in Berhalter's work.
“In terms of Columbus, it's a team that we respect a lot,” Marsch said. “We admire the way they play, and their coach has done a fantastic job with their team. … In all ways the preparation's been good, and we're excited for a good series.”
Playing against each other, New York won two of their three regular-season meetings, including one at MAPFRE Stadium; 2-1 was the score in all three games. Both teams will likely stick to their approaches in the two postseason encounters.
The Red Bulls look to drive opponents into a shell with relentless pressure and movement on both sides of the ball. Columbus, full of width and attacking intent, generally prefer to pass adversaries to death before feeding Kei Kamara, the imposing striker who's netted a league-best 24 total MLS goals in 2015, counting his two playoff strikes against Montreal.
It appears unlikely that either team will abandon what got them to this point. Asked whether D.C. United's grind-it-out approach to the Red Bulls in the last round provided his team with a blueprint, Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst sounded uninclined to compromise, even if his team's approach is riskier.
“When you think of the Red Bulls, you think of high press, especially when we played against them, the way that we like to play out of the back,” said Parkhurst. “Their high press isn't as effective against D.C. because D.C. doesn't try to play out of the back, they play more direct. The Red Bulls are able to generate a lot of offense when they have turnovers in the attacking third and get straight to goal.
“Just because D.C. made it difficult for them [by] playing direct, it doesn't mean that we think that's the only way for success. We still feel confident of the things that we do best, and that's building out of the back, taking advantage of Kei up top.”