MLS Cup is here. This weekend we will see a champion crowned, and it will happen in Columbus. There has been buzz this week, and rightly so, but a lot of it has revolved around Don Garber's State of the League and Sports Illustrated interview comments or LogGate or any number of things happening around the game.
Among all the excitement, let's take a moment to refocus on what matters — the game. On Sunday at 4:25 p.m. EST, a sold-out MAPFRE Stadium will play host to MLS Cup, as Columbus Crew SC and Portland Timbers FC step onto a beautiful grassy field and commence determining who has the right to call themselves the 2015 champion.
With that in mind, let's push all the extraneous matter to the side for a moment, and focus on the game itself.
The last meeting
Columbus and Portland met only once in 2015 — way, way back (okay, maybe not) on Sept. 26 at MAPFRE Stadium. The Timbers walked away with a 2-1 victory. It was the first of back-to-back losses (the next, ironically, coming 2-1 to New York Red Bulls) and ended a period of just two losses in 11 games for Crew SC.
But what can we take from it, looking back? A lot, and not a whole lot, all at the same time.
To start with the latter, both of these teams are playing at a different level from that time. In that aspect, it might be wise to throw out what you know from that game.
Following the next loss in New York (OK, New Jersey), the Black & Gold posted back-to-back clean sheets — after managing just three shutouts all season previously — against playoff teams, beginning what was a sudden but much-needed defensive revolution. Columbus has proven to be a different, better team from that point on.
Portland, meanwhile, desperately needed that win. At the time it was fighting just to maintain a playoff position. The Timbers have lost just once since then (incidentally, the very next week against Sporting Kansas City). That unbeaten run began with a switch to the 4-3-3, and Portland found a revolution of its own.
In that sense, one shouldn't expect the game to play out exactly as it did. Also consider that Columbus had enough opportunities that it likely could have had another goal or two on any other day. It all makes for a scenario that doesn't seem to lend itself to repetition — at least, not in the way it plays out.
That said, there are aspects to keep in mind. Fanendo Adi notched both goals for the visitors, the first coming when the defense lost the big No. 9 at the top of the box and the second coming when Adi found space in a defense that was scrambling after getting caught up the field. Certainly, those are things that can happen again.
Crew SC had much of its success through the air, as it has done all season, and there's no reason to think that's not an area to exploit yet again.
There's a good chance that MLS Cup will be decided based on one of those things — an Adi goal, a Portland counterattack, a Kamara headed goal.
Nagbe and the midfield
Part of the boost that the Timbers have gotten has come from players like Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla finding their feet a little more, but the consensus is the turnaround — which took Portland from praying for the postseason to third in the West — came on the back of a tweaked midfield.
The shift from a 4-2-3-1 immediately turned the season for the team from the Rose City, The 4-3-3 has left Diego Chara as the lone No. 6, where he seems to relish the freedom to just break things up and protect the back line, rather than have to play off of another deep-lying midfielder, which wasn't always working well. It's also shifted Darlington Nagbe from the wing to a more central, deeper role in the midfield, a move that has been pretty well documented. The TL;DR version — Nagbe is better operating out of a central position, where he can work the ball more at his feet, where he excels at keeping possession and finding teammates in dangerous positions, while also having room to drive at the defense and create space. Combined with Chara's role shift, everything has changed for the Timbers.
Meanwhile, Diego Valeri continues to be an X-factor and can be counted on to come up with a couple of moments of magic on most nights.
Suddenly, all three midfielders seem to be in roles that suit them very well.
It also allows two of three wingers — Rodney Wallace and either Melano or Asprilla — to create danger. With Nagbe proving to at least be serviceable tracking back, this has made Portland's attack more consistently dangerous while also solidifying team defense.
The key will be the way the Black & Gold midfield responds. Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani had a strong conference final against New York and will be tasked on Sunday with helping track Nagbe and Valeri. Tchani's physicality will also be critical to try to keep the two creative players off their game.
Federico Higuain, however, might be the most important player in a Crew SC uniform. He roams as much as any player in the league, and with Chara the lone defensive mid for Portland, Pipa will have an opportunity to drag Chara around the field — virtually a necessity for Columbus to win. If Higuain can do that, it creates opportunities for Tchani to crash forward and/or Justin Meram to cut in from the left — like he loves to do — and create overloads in the middle of the field.
Controlling that portion of the field can not only create opportunities, but also force Nagbe to defend more.
The bomb squad
Both of these teams are similar in that they have dangerous wingers and like to get their fullbacks forward. Of course, no team in the league pushes their fullbacks higher of the field than Columbus.
On more than one occasion it's come back to bite the Black & Gold, and many are predicting that if anything drives Crew SC's demise in this game, it will be getting caught up field. It's a genuine concern against a team more than capable of striking quickly.
At the same time, it's possible to catch the Timbers outside backs in the same fashion. That's why this position could also be a deciding factor.
MLS Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle wrote about the possibility of Ethan Finlay and Meram swapping sides at times. We've only seen it occasionally this season, but Doyle's reasoning makes sense — Portland's right side of Melano and Alvas Powell is likely a bit looser defensively than the opposite side. That could create room for Finlay to get in behind Powell and create opportunities for himself or others.
On the flip side, Columbus has often been guilty of getting caught high this season, but has been less prone over the last month. Waylon Francis, in particular, has done a better job of tracking back. But that doesn't change the fact that the Black & Gold will have to be on heightened alert.
Much has been made of the coaching matchup, and there's plenty of reason to be excited — two young, American coaches who could be classified as soccer idealists.
Of course, Portland's continued evolution has been tied to Caleb Porter's own development, in which he has become more pragmatic.
On the other side of the field, one of the big questions this season for Crew SC, besides defensive consistency, has been the existance of a Plan B. For a long time it looked like there was none, and that was concerning — Columbus plays great soccer, but would live and die by it. During these playoffs, however, we've seen one of the club's biggest questions answered, as Gregg Berhalter has shown enough flexibility to win games in which run-and-gun might not be the best approach.
Berhalter has been smarter, but Plan A is still his Plan A; and it still seems clear that, under it all, Porter wants to attack and play attractive soccer. MLS Cup is traditionally a cagey affair, but if ever there was a matchup that could offer up a beautiful, thrilling final, it would be these two men.
Will Berhalter go all out and try to dictate the game in front of the home fans? Will he have his team drop a little deeper, as it did against NYRB? Will Porter respond to CCSC by counterattacking with a vengeance and opening things up? Or will the Timbers be more cautious?
And then there's the bigger picture: which one of these guys will lead the U.S. Men's National Team first?
Crew SC is here because of its defensive growth, and that's something out of a fever dream for fans that have watched this team all season. The change has been a revelation, and a much needed one, over the last two months.
Gaston Sauro has been a catlyst for this change, along with what has been a subtle shift in approach from both Berhalter and the team. This isn't about brilliant defending from Sauro, it's about a great team effort. During the season, points were often dropped because of a mistake here and a gaffe there, but the team has been working as a unit in a way that it hadn't in the past, and it was evident against the Red Bulls.
Sauro's impact has been two-fold — he's offered a physical edge the back line lacked, and in doing so has freed everyone up, I believe, to more comfortably fit in their own roles.
The idea was that Emanuel Pogatetz would be that physical guy — his nickname is "Mad Dog," after all. But it was clear that Pogatetz's age was catching up to him and that maybe his transition into American culture and the MLS grind took its toll, especially when combined with his age. What happened was both centerbacks ended up caught in no-man's land, trying to figure out where to be and when to be there. Sauro's insertion has clarified all that. He's the big body and the grit, Michael Parkhurst is the heady, positional guy. It's a role he made a career on, and now he doesn't need to worry about anything but doing what he does best.
Battle of the benches
Many an MLS Cup has been determined by a move late in the game that has proven to be a difference maker. Which team will make the right moves on Sunday?
Both squads have quality off the bench. Portland can bring on either Melano or Asprilla, depending on who starts. It can bring on Maximiliano Urruti.
Columbus has Jack McInerney or Cedrick Mabwati, the latter of which deserves a lot of credit for the team being here right now.
One of those names could be a difference maker.
One note for the Black & Gold: I mentioned earlier about swapping Finlay and Meram. It could be that Mabwati offers the same effect as a sub. His speed against tired legs on a left side that could already be caught high could break things open.
Striker vs. Striker (finishing the deal)
You've got to put the goal in the net to win MLS Cup, and both teams have a guy up top that can do that.
Adi has found goal 18 times since the start of the season. For much of it that happened in fits and starts as a streaky goalscorer. Since the two teams last met, though — and since the switch to the 4-3-3 — Adi has consistently become the guy he had shown flashes of before.
The big striker is far more physical than Bradley Wright Phillips, who Crew SC hemmed in the past two weeks, but he wants the ball at his feet. Adi does a good job of getting in position in space and bodying up defenders, and the Timbers put the ball at his feet, where he wants it — he's not much of an aerial threat. Besides keeping the pressure higher up and preventing the ball from getting to the feet of Adi in the box, Sauro can also add a new dimension for Columbus. He wasn't on the field the last time these two squads met, and he adds the grit and physicality in the middle that is needed to match up with a No. 9 the size of Adi.
On the other side, Kei Kamara has been a catalyst for Columbus' entire season. He's arguably the most athletic player in Major League Soccer, and that's the key to the matchup with Portland center backs Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers. Kamara can beat both of those defenders for speed, and he can out-jump them both. Crosses have been the bread and butter for CCSC in 2015, and it's an approach that should work well in this matchup, with Kamara in a prime position to beat the defense to those balls.