MLS Cup comes Major League Soccer’s original “soccer specific” facility when the Columbus Crew host the Portland Timbers Sunday afternoon at MAPFRE Stadium (formerly Crew Stadium) as season number 20 for the league comes to a close.
Many never thought the league would make it this far and the same can be said for these two finalists. Portland, in particular were far from a sure thing to qualify for the MLS post season, although the Timbers closed well to finish third in the Western Conference.
Columbus were on a lot preseason lists as a team to watch out for in 2015 but as the season wore on the New York Red Bulls emerged as solid favorites in the Eastern Conference.
Sunday’s finalists took similar paths to this final, each defeating a team that they finished seven points behind in the regular season. Portland and Columbus each took advantage of strong first games, over FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls respectively, and withstood furious comebacks to advance but unlike the semifinals the MLS Cup is a once off.
The two clubs are led by young American coaches with MLS playing experience, although Porter played just one year in MLS, 1999 with San Jose, while former U.S. international Berhalter spent his best years in Europe, before finishing up in L.A.
The teams diverge on the stat sheet and on the field with the Crew relying on a league best (tied with the Red Bulls) 58 regular season goals to overcome a less impressive defense while Porterball 2015 was all about the defense.
But Columbus shored up its defense for the playoffs, frustrating the high scoring Red Bulls with a gameplan that neutralized the N.Y. press.
Portland too evolved as the season progressed, the turning point coming with a re-worked midfield that freed up new U.S. MNT man Darlington Nagbe to attack from a central midfield role where, Diego Chara’s defensive work, Nagbe combined with Diego Valeri to give the Timbers attack a more potent look.
Games are decided in the midfield often enough for that expression to qualify as a cliche, which makes it no less true.
Portland’s new look midfield counts on Chara to cover enormous swaths of ground while relying on a top class back four to take care of business in front of goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.
It is a bit of a risky approach but moving centrally as allowed Nagbe to display his attacking game on a far more consistent level than at any time in his career. Gifted Argentine Diego Valeri completes Porter’s midfield troika filling the playmaker role and the combination can be deadly.
Berhalter lines his team out in 4-2-3-1 with the duo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani in the deeper roles while their own Argentine playmaker Federico Higuain pulls the strings for the Crew attack.
Winger Ethan Finlay set up a good chunk of Kei Kamara’s 25 goals this year with American born Iraqi international Justin Meram and a dangerous fullback duo of Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful adding still more attacking threat for the home team.
Portland’s top goal scorer Fanendo Adi is not at Kamara’s level but 16 goals is nothing to sneeze at, and his size and strength can give Michael Parkhurst trouble. Given that neither Parkhurst’s central defense partner Gaston Sauro or Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark looked particularly sharp in the Conference finals, Columbus may need that dynamic offense to come to the rescue on Sunday.
Portland are expecting Liam Ridgewell back after a one game injury absence and that is big news for the Timbers. Nat Borchers was the defensive hero against Dallas and with Kwarasey in goal the trio provide a solid foundation for Portland to build on. Fullback Jorge Villafana has also shone in the playoffs, although Rodney Wallace can be a bit attack happy on the opposite wing.
The two sides have some depth but the home team might have the edge if looking for a difference maker with the championship on the line. Berhalter can call on Cedric Mabwati or Jack McInerney for a boost of instant offense while Portland pair Lucas Melano and Maximiliano Urruti can also provide a spark.
Historically five of the six teams that have hosted the Championship ended up hoisting the MLS Cup, although Portland has been the top road team in the league this season.
It all points to a close game in a sold out MAPFRE Stadium where the atmosphere has been electric this post-season, which might just be enough to see MLS originals Columbus raise the Cup for the first time in its 20 year history.