The 2014 MLS playoffs began on Wednesday and when New England (17-13-4) meets Columbus (14-10-10) on Saturday (4 p.m., CSNNE) at Crew Stadium in the first of a two-game series, you won’t find two hotter clubs in the league. The Crew finished on a 6-1-1 clip while the Revolution closed 9-1-2 to grab the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Columbus is the third seed so after the second match, a week from Sunday at Gillette Stadium, one of these genuine title contenders will be done for the season. During the regular season, Columbus went 2-1 against New England, although the Revolution won the last meeting, 2-1, on Oct. 4 at home.
For New England, its entire fate changed this summer when it acquired World Cup hero Jermaine Jones (two goals, four assists). The U.S. men’s national team midfielder debuted on Aug. 30 at Toronto (a 3-0 win) and since that point, his new club has gone 8-1-1 with him in the lineup. While Jones gets the headlines around the world, fellow midfielder Lee Nguyen is a legitimate MVP candidate this season.
In his third season in Foxboro, Nguyen’s career has completely taken off with 18 goals (fourth most in the league, most for a midfielder), five assists and an MLS-leading nine game-winning goals (three more than the next closest player). Interestingly, with Jones on the backend of his U.S. career at 32, Nguyen (who recently turned 28) should get some serious consideration from U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for upcoming international friendlies and qualifiers.
Argentine forward Federico Higuain and midfielder Ethan Finlay led the Crew with 11 goals apiece. Home field advantage could be a huge factor since Columbus has a goal-differential of plus-12 at Crew Stadium and minus-2 on the road. New England’s home/road splits are even more eye-popping as they are plus-14 at Gillette Stadium and minus-9 on the road. Whichever squad progresses will have overcome some recent forgettable history: the Revolution have not advanced in the postseason since 2007 while the Crew’s last postseason series win came the following year.
The winner of Revolution/Crew will take on either top-seeded DC United or the winner of Thursday’s knockout round match between New York and Sporting KC in the Eastern Conference Final, two weeks after New England and Columbus’ semifinal series is decided. The aggregate scores of the two matches decide who advances, so every goal counts.