LOS ANGELES – A new name will be engraved on the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Sunday afternoon when the Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls seek the defining moment in their franchise histories.
Both teams have been in Major League Soccer since its inception, yet neither has made it to the title game ahead of their clash at the Home Depot Center.
Here we break down the key issues and matchups that will go a long way towards deciding the new champion.
Two of the league's most experienced players will undoubtedly have a big impact on the outcome. Not only are Schelotto's and Angel's performances crucial to their team's rhythm, but each man is also a talismanic figure within his locker room and will be looked upon to provide the inspiration that could decide the result.
Schelotto's dazzling skills appear to have lost none of the sparkle of his glory days with Boca Juniors in Argentina, while Angel is reviving memories of his most productive seasons with Aston Villa in the English Premier League. The freer role that Schelotto is used in Columbus' attack may afford him more opportunities to make a game-changing impact than Angel, who is somewhat reliant on receiving good service from his midfield core.
The thinkers: Crew coach Sigi Schmid vs. Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
Schmid was fired as Los Angeles Galaxy coach four years ago because his outstanding team was not playing "entertaining" soccer. Winning soccer just wasn't sexy enough.
Given the Galaxy's recent failings, lifting the trophy at his old homefield would be extra sweet for Schmid, the meticulous mentor who has worked a small miracle in Ohio. Schmid will draw on the confidence of his players and be safe in the knowledge that if the Crew shows its best form from the regular season, it should be enough to secure a victory.
Osorio, meanwhile, has given New York exactly what it wanted in his first season since switching from the Chicago Fire – a team with a bit of backbone. He has steadily constructed a cohesive unit and spearheaded a dramatic run through the playoffs. Rarely has a team come into the championship game on such a wave of momentum.
The keepers: Crew's Will Hesmer vs. Red Bulls' Danny Cepero.
If the Red Bulls go on to win the MLS Cup, it would complete a brief but remarkable journey for the young Cepero.
Cepero was drafted into the starting lineup following Jon Conway's 10-game substance ban and a loan stint with the Harrisburg City Islanders of USL-2 earlier this season. He has already scored a goal (the first MLS keeper to do so) and played a key part in the Red Bulls' dramatic victory over defending champion Houston Dynamo in the playoffs' opening round.
Hesmer, who is hoping to celebrate his 27th birthday on Sunday with an MLS Cup triumph, has been solid all season and is starting to get some deserved attention. He has more experience than Cepero but is still in only his second season as a starter. This will be by far the biggest game of his career.
The term unsung hero could have been invented for Carroll, the former D.C. United midfielder who has played a huge role in Columbus' superb season. His rock-like presence as a holding midfielder added a sense of calm and stability to the team and eased the pressure on the defensive unit. Players in his position rarely get the credit they deserve but anyone in the Crew camp will tell just how valuable Carroll has been.
For New York, van den Bergh brings the sort of fiery mentality needed in a final. He scored the big goal in the conference final victory against Real Salt Lake and adds a streak of competitive bite to Osorio's squad. Earlier this year, he famously riled David Beckham; now the Dutchman will be looking to get under Columbus' skin and earn himself a championship ring.
Columbus is the best team in MLS and while regular-season performances are no guantateee of playoff glory, the Crew should have just too much for the Red Bulls.
New York is riding the crest of a wave and fancies its chances, but the team from the Big Apple will struggle to contain Schelotto's artistry. Columbus wins a tight encounter 2-1.