It’s that time of the year again; that’s right the MLS Cup championship match.
Sure you are saying its MLS, why should I watch the NY Red Bulls or the LA Galaxy play again? Well much to my dismay, (LA Galaxy being my home team) that is not the case, this final will feature two teams that battle out this season and beat top teams to earn this shot.
On Sunday, MLS Cup will feature the Columbus Crew vs. the Portland Timbers. A match that draws pretty even on paper and is sure to be even more entertaining on the pitch. Here is my preview of MLS’s biggest game of the year.
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The Columbus Crew:
Columbus Crew enter this game ending their season 15-8-11 finished 2nd in the east, the Crew battled their way to the final by taking the series against the Montreal Impact 4-3 on aggregate and winning the Eastern Conference final against the NY Red Bulls 2-1 on aggregate.
The Portland Timbers:
Portland Timbers finished their season also at 15-8-11 but finished 3rd in the west, unlike their Eastern opponent’s, the Timbers had to start the playoffs in a knockout round against Sporting Kansas. They ended up winning their first match in grand style, 7-6 on penalty kicks with their keeper Kwarasey not only netting in the final penalty kick but blocking the next shot.
The Timbers went on to defeat the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 on aggregate and took that momentum to steamroll FC Dallas and win their first Eastern Conference Championship 5-3 on aggregate.
A Brief Look At The Clubs
Columbus comes into the finals for the second time in their clubs history, the last time being in 2008 where they defeated the heavily favorite NY Red Bulls 3-1. They are looking at becoming just the sixth club to win multiple MLS Cups ( joining the likes of D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City, LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes).
Their coach, former LA Galaxy player Gregg Berhalter, is making his MLS Cup coaching debut. Berhalter is not, however, making his MLS Cup debut, he has seen the big stage before while playing for the LA Galaxy and winning the cup in 2011 as one of their top defenders.
Berhalter’s experience in this type of game will be a great benefit for the Crew as whom better to coach you through a big game then someone who has not only played in the same game but won it all.
Portland is making their inaugural appearance in the MLS Cup, having captured their first playoff appearance this season along with their first piece of postseason trophies by winning the Western Conference final by beating Dallas FC 5-3 on aggregate.
Caleb Porter, the manager for the Timbers, is also making his first appearance in the MLS Cup. Unlike Berhalter, Porter’s career was short lived, having suffered multiple knee injuries that sidelined him and ultimately accounted for his early retirement from the sport.
Porter did, however, capture a bronze medal while playing for the US team in the 1997 World University games. Despite his lack of playing time, his coaching experience is one to talk about; having coached six years as head coach of the University of Akron’s soccer program and earning in 2010 the NCAA Division I soccer championship.
Road To The Cup
Columbus and Portland have met only once this season with the Timbers coming away with a 2-1 victory over the Crew. The two sides share a 2-2-2 record against each other in their history, and this cup clash will surely be another great head to head battle.
In 34 games, this season the Crew has scored 58 goals that tie for second best attacking in the MLS tied with Toronto FC and behind the NY Red Bulls, they average 1.21 goals per game.
Columbus started the season off with touch matchups, beating the new expansion team Orlando City and Kaka 3-0 in their mid-April clash. The Crew also managed to beat Clint Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders on May 9, 3-2 and followed it up with a 1-1 tie to the defending champs the LA Galaxy and Robbie Keane.
They drew a 2-2 tie with another powerful expansion team NYFC and David Villa on August 19 but ended up losing the series on August 29, 2-1.
They demolished their rivals DC United in their last home game of the season 5-0, the only meeting between the two teams this season. Columbus as fought all season long, they have undoubtedly earned this chance at MLS glory and what better way than to win the cup at home.
Portland started off their season with a second game clash against Robbie Keane and the defending champs the LA Galaxy. In a tough battle, Portland managed to come away with a 2-2 draw.
The Timbers however played their best football on the road this season winning seven games, tied for the most in MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps, defeating Montreal Impact 2-1 on May 9, defeating their current opponents the Columbus Crew 2-1 on September the 26 logging in more shots on goal (6-1) than the Crew even though they suffered possession-wise with the Crew possessing 59 percent over the Timbers 41 percent.
The biggest road win comes in their second game against a tough LA Galaxy team at the StubHub Center, the Timbers came away with a commanding 5-2 victory with all five goals coming from the second half of play.
The Timbers solidified their MLS Cup run this season by battling out tough opponents on the road, they have earned their shot and Sunday they will continue that battle as they look to win their first franchise title away from Portland and into the clutches of MAPFRE Stadium Columbus, Ohio.
Players to Watch
The stage is set; the teams has fought tooth and nail for this chance at MLS greatest trophy. Here is my list of players to watch this game, all can provide some much-needed strength for their teams.
For The Crew:
The Golden Boot runner-up, losing only to the red hot Sabastian Giovinco. Kamara is going to be the offense for the Crew. In the last series against the NY Red Bulls, Kamara had ten shots six of which were on target and netted one goal during the first game.
He leads this postseason in goals with three scored, also leads in shots as well as shots on goal with 17 shots and 10 on goals, which just demonstrate he is still on a hot strike from the regular season.
He has been the driving force behind the Crew’s attack and it’s going to be up to the Portland defense to try and stop the active Sierra Leonean striker.
This left back is going to be the key to the Crews defense; he has been a versatile fullback, ranking in the top 10 defensive tackles during this season playoffs.
During the playoff game against the Montreal, Impact Francis provided with an assist to striker Kei Kamara in the third minute of the match.
He is looking to provide some crucial passes in the championship game while also keeping up his stout defense as he sees a matchup against the Timber’s Columbian forward Dairon Asprilla.
The only player with any MLS Cup experience Parkhurst is going to be needed in providing his team with valuable expertise.
Parkhurst is on my watch list because of his postseason experience; he has the knowledge and skill to coach his back line and keep their heads straight during this championship match.
The center back is going to have to hold a sharp line and shut down the fast Portland offense in the form of Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe.
For The Timbers:
Nagbe’s recent interest from the US national team comes as no surprise; the midfielder has been playing great football.
Nagbe earned man of the match during the Timber’s first leg match against Vancouver Whitecaps; Nagbe logged in a 91% pass rating, two shot, and three tackles along with an interception.
His regular season passing rating is at 88.8%, and he is going to need it as the speedy American will most likely be the setup man for Fanendo Adi and Dairon Asprilla.
Adi showed his worth in the second game against the Vancouver White Caps, and he scored one goal in the 30 minute and also provided with a key assist to Diego Chara in the 93 minute.
In Adi’s five postseason games, he has two goals, one assist and five shots with three on target. His second goal in the 53 minute helped propel the Timbers over Dallas FC and set the stage for this upcoming game.
Adi will have to break apart Michael Parkhurst and the Crew back line with his pace and counter attack ability.
Chara will be the single holding midfielder for the Timbers; he is unyielding when it comes to tackles ranking number four in tackles during the regular season with an average of 3.7 tackles.
Along with his defensive play the man can shoot, he netted in a goal in the 93 during the second game of the Vancouver Whitecaps series, sealing an Eastern Conference playoff appearance for his club. During that match, he also racked up five of the Timber’s 12 tackles and was a key component in the Timbers defensive.
He will be a great two-way midfield in this final game as his aggressiveness will set up the Timbers for more crucial passes, and his tackles and interceptions will provide the defense with some breathing room.
Big News Ahead of The Game
Portland will be playing its away game without one of its biggest fans, Timber Joey. Yes, everyone’s favorite chainsaw wielding football fan will not be able to attend the match according to Crew SC Director of Stadium Operations and Merchandise Dan Lolli.
A tough loss for the Timbers but I feel that the sea of green will be enough to cheer on their team and, of course, Timber Joey will be there with them in spirit.
Ahead of this big game Sporting Kansas defender Matt Besler provides some world class advice for both the Timbers and the Crew. In an article posted to the Players Tribune, Besler tells the players "Play the same way you played all season long. Do the same thing that has gotten you to this point”
He goes on to say “And if you do get nervous or stressed out, take a deep breath and remember that’s it's okay. You’re still playing, man.”
Great advice indeed even though this is a big match you cannot lose sight of all the hard work and dedication you put into getting here, play the game like it is meant to be played, have fun and enjoy your time in the limelight.
My Comments Before The Game
All in all this Sundays match is going to be a great hard fought battle, even though my LA Galaxy are not in finals, I will still be watching intensely. Two great teams that have certainly deserved their shot at the cup are all everyone ever wants to watch.
Having said that I am going go ahead and put my faith in the Portland Timbers taking this game and winning their first MLS Cup. This team has fought hard especially in the knockout round beating Sporting Kansas in one of the greatest endings in an MLS playoff match, and it’s about time they get rewarded appropriately.
Vegas has the over-under set to two and a half goals, I see the match going to the Timbers 2-1 in overtime, what better way to end the season right?