If the Red Bulls’ series against D.C. United more closely resembled a street fight, their Eastern Conference Final vs. the Columbus Crew will be more like a game of chess.

The East’s two best teams will battle this Sunday for the right to represent the conference, as they look to book their ticket in the MLS Cup Final. After a physical, defense-heavy series against D.C. United, Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch expects a completely different contest between New York and Columbus.

“D.C. was more like a heavyweight fight and the [Conference Final] is going to more like a soccer game or football match,” Marsch said Tuesday. “I think that there will be a lot more tactics involved, and the team that is more alert and committed and able to put the game on their terms, will come out victorious.”

Both teams love to attack and it shows in the stats during the regular season. The Red Bulls led MLS with 62 goals scored and the Crew tied for second in the league with 58 goals. Twenty-two of those 58 tallies came from striker Kei Kamara, a tall, powerful striker who will be the target of New York’s defense throughout the series.

“[The Crew] is a dangerous team,” defender Sal Zizzo said. “They like to get their outside backs forward. They’ve had two wingers who had good seasons and Kamara, obviously. They like to put balls in the box and be dangerous that way. They like to shift it from one side to the other. These are all things we have to be aware of and do our best limit.”

Season in Review – Red Bulls vs. Crew

All three games between the Red Bulls and Crew this season finished with the same score — 2-1 – and all of them could have gone either way. Here’s a look back at all three contests.

March 28 in Columbus – Red Bulls 2, Crew 1

After a scoreless first half, the match came alive in the second. Bradley Wright-Phillips would get the Red Bulls on the board with a 47th-minute penalty.  Former Red Bull Tony Tchani would equalize for Columbus in the 58th minute, but New York would come away with three points after Mike Grella’s audacious chipped goal in the 67th minute.


July 4 in Columbus – Crew 2, Red Bulls 1

It looked like the Red Bulls would go on to make it two wins in a row early on against the Crew. Anatole Abang opened the scoring with an early goal in the eighth minute, but his strike was canceled out by Ethan Finlay’s goal in the 33rd. The Crew would play in a more direct style in this one, targeting Kamara as the center of their attacks with long balls that tested the Red Bulls’ defense. Kamara and Finlay would combine again in the 74th minute, with Finlay giving the home side the win with a late goal.


October 3 at Red Bull Arena – Red Bulls 2, Crew 1

At Red Bull Arena, the Crew seized the lead early behind Justin Meram’s ninth-minute goal, but the Red Bulls answered back quickly behind a goal from Lloyd Sam in the 12th minute and a 21st-minute strike from Wright-Phillips. There were close moments, but in the end, New York held on for a hard-fought win.

Steve Cangialosi and Shep Messing break down the action from the Red Bulls' 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew at Red Bull Arena.


A Look Ahead – Eastern Conference Final First Leg: Red Bulls at Crew

While the attention will be drawn toward offensive players such as Wright-Phillips and Kamara, the key to the series will be in the midfield and on defense.

Styles make fights and the two teams’ philosophies couldn’t be more different. The Red Bulls want to compress the game into their opponent’s half and constrict space on the field, while the Crew want to make the pitch as big possible, using the width of the field as a way to get the ball to Kamara.

Both sides utilize a 4-2-3-1 formation and the middle three players in both teams could swing the balance of the series. The Red Bulls’ trio of McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipe were the driving force to New York’s Supporters’ Shield-winning season, while the Crew’s combination of Tchani, Will Trapp and Federico Higuain is formidable in its own right.

Defensively is where the Red Bulls have the distinct advantage over the Crew. New York gave up 10 fewer goals this season – 43 goals allowed compared with Columbus’ 53 – and the amount of chances the Crew give up play into the Red Bulls’ counterattacking style.

Nevertheless, Dax McCarty sees another close series.

“We have to make sure that if we want to score goals, we’re sharp in the attacking third,” the Red Bulls’ captain said. “I think we need to play better – much better – than we did in the D.C. series because we know if we don’t punish Columbus when we get chances, they have the capability of punishing us.”


Complete Red Bulls Coverage