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The New York Red Bulls have defied the odds by reaching the MLS Cup final. (Douglas C. Pizac/Associated Press))

It's a mismatch pitting the best team in the league against a side that needed help on the last day of the regular season just to sneak into the playoffs.

To hear the pundits tell it, the New York Red Bulls have little chance of defeating the Columbus Crew in Sunday's MLS Cup final from Los Angeles (CBC, CBC Bold, 3 p.m. ET).

What's more, the critics say, it's disgraceful that eighth-seeded New York is even being allowed to take to the field against top-ranked Columbus, and that it would be a major embarrassment for Major League Soccer if they somehow won.

But hold on a second, says Red Bulls defender Kevin Goldwaite.

"For all the people who say we don't belong here, I would say our performance throughout the year was good enough to get us into the playoffs and we took care of business once we got here," Goldwaite told CBCSports.ca.

Don't write off the Bulls

Goldwaite has a point.

New York only qualified for the playoffs after Columbus defeated D.C. United 1-0 on the last day of the regular season, a result that allowed the Red Bulls to secure the final wild card berth and slide through the back door.

Most critics predicted the Red Bulls, with a meagre 10-11-9 record during the regular season, would meekly bow out in the first round of the playoffs.

It didn't work out that way. Instead, New York, a team that won only a single road game all year, defeated the Houston Dynamo (in a home-and-home series) and Real Salt Lake — two of the best home teams in the league — en route to a spot in the MLS Cup final.

Goldwaite concedes that New York got into the playoffs by the skin of its teeth, but has proven it belongs in the post-season with impressive wins against Houston, the two-time defending champion, and Salt Lake.

"We deserved to be in the playoffs and once you make it in, it's anybody's ball game. Your regular-season record doesn't count. … Once you're in the playoffs you just need to get results," Goldwaite said.

"It doesn't matter how ugly it is, it doesn't matter how pretty it is. The bottom line is that the most important stat is goals for and goals against, and we've led in those categories in our playoff games."

New York struggled defensively during the year, giving up a whopping 48 goals (only the Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C. had a worse defensive record) and sporting a miserable minus-6 goal differential.

But Goldwaite and his fellow defenders have shown great poise in the playoffs, limiting the opposition to just one goal and registering two shutouts in three games.

How does the former Toronto FC defender account for such a drastic change in the team's defensive play?

"I think that guys at the back have just come together at the right time," explained Goldwaite, a product of the University of Notre Dame. "We've made it a point amongst the four of us to do whatever we can to defend first and make sure we have a chance to win late in the game."

Suspensions to Conway, Parke hurt team

New York's stunning run to the final is all the more amazing when you consider they've done it without starting goalkeeper Jon Conway and influential defender Jeff Parke, who both received 10-game suspensions last month after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

The loss of two key players down the regular-season stretch was a crushing blow for New York, one that surely should have spelled the end of their playoff aspirations.

But rookie goalkeeper Danny Cepero and second-year defender Andrew Boyens stepped in and performed admirably in the absence of the two veterans, especially in the playoffs.  

"We didn't wallow in the fact that we lost those two great players. We accepted it, we moved on, and we tried to solve the issue on the field as quickly as possible and I think we did that with Cepero and Boyens," said Goldwaite.

"Being pro-active about the suspensions and being as optimistic as possible going into games knowing that we did have pretty good players filling in for them, I think that gave us extra confidence."

Goldwaite has also played a part in New York's success.

The 25-year-old native of Sacramento, Calif., was traded by Houston to Toronto last April only to be dealt to New York by the Canadian club two months later.

He struggled for the remainder of the season with New York, but established himself as one of the Red Bulls' key players during the 2008 campaign, leading the team in games started (28) and minutes played (2,438). He was also named the team's defender of the year.

Goldwaite attributed his solid 2008 campaign to becoming more mature since last season.

"I think the biggest thing for me was the maturity factor," Goldwaite admitted. "In my first few seasons in the league, I never really felt comfortable playing at left-back. I always tried to play up to people's expectations of me, but this year I came in and threw all my inhibitions to the wind.

"I also have a great coach who trusts me and has confidence in me, and that's a huge confidence booster for me. Those two things have helped me grow as a player and develop into a solid left-back in this league."