Non-MLS Fans Don't Know What They're Missing

One of the more annoying - and at the same time most compelling - things about professional sports is the semi-monthly "Game of the Year" or "Game of the Decade". As often as not the game doesn't live up to the collective buzz, and deep down you know you're probably being had, but all things considered you really don't mind all that much.

Like that girl at the end of the bar who knows full well that you're just trying to charm her out of her pants. She's not opposed to you doing it if you can do it well.

And so it is with this evening's MLS Eastern Conference Championship match between Chicago and Columbus. The soccer press (whatever that means any more, if it mean anything at all), and media of all sorts right down to the most obscure vanity blogger all agree that this will be a Titanic struggle of MLS heavyweights, a game for the ages, insert-corny-sports-cliche-here.

However that may be - and I'm not even going to discuss the "this is the real MLS Cup game" meme; that's ice of a thinness that even I don't dare tread - there really are some substantial reasons to believe that this could be one you don't want to miss.

First of all, these teams are as close to mirror images of each other as you'll ever see. Busch won GK of the Year, with Hesmer right behind. Central defender Chad Marshall won Defender of the year with central defender Bakary Soumare right behind.

One outside defender on each side wants to shoot forward (Hejduk, Segares) while the other will mostly stay at home (Padula, Prideaux).

Carrol and Evans vs. Thorrington and Pause. Moreno vs. McBride. Barros-Schelotto and Blanco roaming the midfield, picking their spots and quarterbacking the offenses. And of course on the outside - where this game could very well be won an lost - young Americans one the come Rogers and Gaven will line up opposite young Americans on the come Mapp and Rolfe.

Chicago fans will tell you that their version of each prototype (tough frontrunner, speedy winger, withdrawn forward/tenshirt, rock solid midfield defender, etc. etc. all the way back to the goal) is the better player, and they have a case. Columbus fans will tell you the exact opposite, and they have every bit as good a case.

Columbus is at home, where they've never played for a conference title - their previous trips have all been on the road. Chicago, having finally disposed of the Curse of New England, thinks they're poised for the return to the finals which has eluded them year after year.

Home field advantage for the Crew may be at least partly offset by the - some are saying unfair - full weeks rest that the Fire has had while the Crew played on Sunday.

It's also the first trip back to Crew Stadium for former Columbus icon Brian McBride, who may not feel quite the same love that he did the last time he walked out there. Reportedly - true story - even his oldest daughter is giving him grief about not playing for Columbus.

And then there are the fans. The Nordecke will be in full, bloodthirsty voice tonight, 1500 strong. Chicago won't be able to match that number down in the South End but they'll be supplemented by the usual Blanco-fan Mexican walkup crowd, which could be substantial in a game of this magnitude.

Crew management, after the embarassment at the West Ham match where a large security force stood on the field watching for death streamers while a group of Hammers supporters marched (singing loudly) the entire length of the stadium and 30 rows down a flight of stairs and started taking swings at people before they even noticed, tonights match - with Don Garber in attendance - will unquestionably set a record for MLS stadium security presence.

Besides a beefed-up contract security force, there'll be a substantial contingent of Columbus Police, County Sheriffs, State Troopers, and K-9 units, supplemented by undercover cops sprinkled throughout the crowd. Multiple security cameras will scan every part of the building.

Hell, if they spent this much on marketing, they'd have to build an addition, but GM Mark McCullers has no intention of letting anything untoward happen if he has anything to say about it.

For their part ESPN, in addition to the full court press on-air promotion they've been running all week long, is giving this game the full 16 camera World Cup treatment. Reportedly, virtually all of their East-of-the-Mississippi production capacity will be parked out back of Crew Stadium.

Want a prediction? Sorry, I don't have one. And while I can't help being so jacked for a Crew win that I could barely sleep last night, as much as the two teams have on the line tonight, it's the league that really needs a win.

This is the kind of game MLS has to have - rivalry matches for all the marbles with interesting back stories that anyone (not just soccer fans) can relate to.

This is still a young league, without a the tons of history and lore that make being a sports fan so involving. Last weekend RedBulls upset of Houston was one for the books. Hopefully tonight will be another.