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Friday, November 21, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: November 23, 1:15 AM UK
Responsibility of shadowing Schelotto falls to Sassano

Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPNsoccernet

CARSON, Calif. -- The task of trying to contain Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the reigning MLS MVP and the key figure in the Columbus Crew attack, will fall on the shoulders of a rookie. It might seem like too tall a task for New York Red Bulls midfielder Luke Sassano, but he has spent the playoffs proving that he isn't just a rookie, and that he is capable of playing well against the league's best playmakers.

Sassano has already faced off against Houston Dynamo star Dwayne De Rosario and Real Salt Lake assist machine Javier Morales in these playoffs and has played a key role in the Red Bulls holding their opponents to a combined one goal in three matches.

"Luke is playing with confidence and doing the job I believed he could do," said Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio. "I said in the beginning of the year that he was capable of contributing more than some would expect from a rookie and right now he is showing that he is ready for the responsibility."

Osorio turned to Sassano after a season-ending injury to Seth Stammler and the continued struggles of Argentine midfielder Juan Pietravallo. Osorio needed a midfielder who could provide the amount of work and discipline required to play the type of stifling defense Osorio prefers.

"Luke is a very dependable guy," Red Bulls midfielder Dave van den Bergh said of Sassano. "He will just do anything you ask him to do, which is great. He's just one of those guys who, if you give him an assignment, he'll do anything and everything he can to do a good job."

MLS Cup final
Sunday
New York vs. Columbus
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif. 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Sassano's path to the MLS Cup final was an improbable one. Not considered a top prospect heading into the 2008 MLS draft, Sassano failed to make a big impact at the MLS combine and actually thought he might have performed poorly. One coach saw something, though. He was Osorio, who considered Sassano one of the top prospects he saw at the MLS combine.

Osorio drafted Sassano with the 32nd overall pick in the draft and wasted no time showing faith in the University of California product, making him a starter early in the season. Sassano's form eventually started to dip as rookie fatigue set in and he found himself on the bench for much of the second half of the season.

Sassano's second chance to establish himself as a starter came at the very end of the regular season. The Red Bulls' 5-2 loss to Chicago forced Osorio to consider some drastic lineup changes and one of those was inserting Sassano into the starting lineup.

"Playing Luke was not only about other players not performing. He was also playing well and doing what he needed to do to be considered," Osorio said. "He has played in some intense games against some of the league's best players and he has done well and it is satisfying to see him play that well."

Sassano will have his hands full trying to shadow Schelotto, but he has certainly gotten good practice in the past three weeks facing some of the league's best playmakers.

"It's prepared our team," Sassano said. "We've seen [De Rosario] and Morales, both very good attacking players who offer different dimensions. Schelotto is another different dimension. We've seen him during the year so we have a good understanding of him.

"He's one of those players that is very similar to [Cuauhtemoc] Blanco in that he has that free role where he drifts along the back line," Sassano said. "It's going to be real important that we're communicating and talking to each other so we keep somebody on him."

As if being a rookie playing in a championship game and being assigned to the league's most valuable player weren't pressure enough, Sassano also has the distinction of being the Red Bulls player with the most ticket requests on the team. The Northern California native has secured 30 tickets and is expecting 50 friends and family members to make the six-hour trip to Home Depot Center for the biggest game of his life.

If Sassano is feeling pressure he certainly isn't showing it. The 23-year-old is spending a good amount of MLS Cup weekend by the pool and resting up for one of the most important assignments any player will have on Sunday. He will be looking to put the ultimate cap on a dream season and if the Red Bulls do pull off the upset on Sunday, you can bet the rookie from Northern California will have played a key role.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.


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