Eastern Conference Championship: Head-to-head breakdown of Columbus Crew SC vs. New York Red Bulls

Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls will face off in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship on Sunday night (5 pm ET; ESPN). Before the series kicks off, some of the editors at MLSsoccer.com took a look at how these teamss match up and who will have the edge in what should be a tightly contested battle. 

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Goalkeepers

In his two seasons in MLS, Steve Clark has proven to be a solid, if not spectacular, goalkeeper that is capable of making the necessary saves to help Crew SC win. He has also shown an adept ability to play with his feet, which has helped Columbus be one of the best possession in the league over the past two seasons. Having said all that, he's matching up against one of the Goalkeeper of the Year in Luis Robles. The 31-year-old has been a rock in the back for the No. 1 defense in the East for all 36 regular season and playoff games, and we should expect that to continue. – BEN BAER

Defenders

With a healthy Damien Perrinelle in the Red Bulls' lineup, this isn't a debate. Of course, that's not the case after the Frenchman suffered a left knee injury against D.C. United in the Conference Semifinals. Columbus, meanwhile, have a personnel issue of their own with Gaston Sauro set to miss the first leg because of yellow-card accumulation. For New York, EPL and Ligue 1 veteran Ronald Zubar will deputize alongside rising star Matt Miazga. For Crew SC, Tyson Wahl is the likely replacement. Edge in the middle, thanks to Miazga's near-DOY campaign: the red side of New York.

On the flanks, Columbus boast, in Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful, two players who were in Brazil last summer for the World Cup and specialize in whipping in balls for Kei Kamara to attack. On the other side, Kemar Lawrence impressed at Copa America and Sal Zizzo and Connor Lade make up a solid platoon. Edge out wide: Crew SC.

Because I think the Red Bulls system proved better at limiting chances this season, I'm giving this one to New York. Jesse Marsch and Gregg Berhalter will tell you that doesn't mean a thing come 5 pm ET on Sunday, however. – ANDREW WIEBE

Midfielders

Fans tuning in to the Eastern Conference Championship will be treated to perhaps the best midfield battle MLS has to offer. The New York Red Bulls are known for their high press, backed by Dax McCarty, arguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS. Felipe provides an able partner to McCarty, Sacha Kljestan pulls the strings further forward, Lloyd Sam lights it up on the right wing and Mike Grella (aka ‘Grelladinho’) has been a revelation on the left. They're so good, they've kept midseason DP acquisition Gonzalo Veron on the bench. And when they all run together, expect to see more of this happen to Crew SC.

Not that Columbus are slouches in the middle of the park. Where the Red Bulls have the tenacious McCarty, Crew SC have the imposing Tony Tchani, who may well be the subject of an international tug-of-war between the US and Cameroon. Federico Higuain’s penchat for pulling goals and assists out of thin air has been well-documented. But the key man here could well be dynamic winger Ethan Finlay, who posted 12 goals and 13 assists in 2015 and was one of forward Kei Kamara’s principal running mates in a 22-goal campaign.

The Red Bulls probably have a slight edge in this matchup thanks to their exceptional teamwork in the high press and ability to effectively move the ball in possession, but it should be a fascinating chess match between two of the league’s best units. – NICHOLAS ROSANO

Forwards

Somehow this tidbit has slipped under the radar: Over the last two years, Bradley Wright-Phillips has tied the MLS record for goals (44) in back-to-back seasons. That he’s done it under two different coaches and in two different systems, playing in front of two vastly different primary chance creators, speaks to how clever and inventive he is with his movement in the final third. While his finishing touch can come and go, his ability to find chances remains elite. Add in his increased playmaking responsibilities, and BWP is arguably the most complete forward in MLS.

But… he’s not Kei Kamara. The Crew SC No. 9 would be the front-runner for MVP just about any other year, producing a spectacular season with 22 goals and 8 assists in his return to MLS. He’s proved to be the ideal target man for Columbus’s cross-heavy attack, and is easily the league’s dominant aerial presence. Like BWP, though, he’s more than just a scorer – he has an underrated eye for the last pass, and is exceptional at dropping in between the lines, then putting his wingers in on goal. Gregg Berhalter can also bring veteran poacher Jack McInerney off the bench for a late push. – MATT DOYLE