It's the game you've been waiting for: the Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC in the MLS Cup Final. These are the final two teams standings in Major League Soccer and play for it all on Sunday afternoon.
The Black & Gold entered the playoffs after a second place finish in the Eastern Conference. Columbus took on the Montreal Impact in the East Semifinals and shut down the likes of Didier Drogba in a 4-3 overtime win over the two legs. Crew SC held the Supporter Shield-winning New York Red Bulls scoreless for nearly two matches, winning the series 2-1 to advance to the Final.
The Timbers finished third in the Western Conference, but had the same final record as Columbus. After a 2-2 draw in the Knockout Round, the Timbers defeated Sporting Kansas City 7-6 in penalty kicks before sending the Vancouver Whitecaps home with a 2-0 series win. The West Final was exciting, with FC Dallas making things interesting late in the second leg, but Portland took care of business in the end, winning the series 5-3.
Because the two teams had the same record, the decision of who will host MLS Cup went to the goal differential tie breaker and thanks to Columbus' 5-0 win over D.C. United to end the season, the Black & Gold welcome the Timbers to MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday.
Having only seen Portland play once this year, a 2-1 loss by Crew SC, we spoke with Will Conwell of Stumptown Footy to gives fans a better idea of what to expect this weekend.
Questions for Stumptown Footy
Massive Report: The Timbers were the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs this year, but have exploded with nine goals in five postseason games. What changed to get this offense going? Was it as simple as moving Darlington Nagbe more central?
Stumptown Footy: This year has been a strange one for the Timbers in front of goal. After a long, fruitless season that saw the Timbers near the top of the league in chances created and shots taken but near the bottom in terms of goals scored, the turnaround in goal scoring fortunes for the team has been remarkable. For most of the year the Timbers -- and Caleb Porter in particular -- preached patience, saying that the chances were there so the goals would come. And just as it seemed like that might not happen, things changed.
The most obvious catalyst is Nagbe's move to a deeper lying spot in the center of the pitch. Embracing Nagbe's role as the guy in the center of the pitch who holds possession and gets the ball forward for the attack, rather then being at the center of the attack itself, has done several things for the Timbers. First, Nagbe is now always in a position to be the shuttling player who received the ball from the defense and turns to start the move up the pitch, where previously his spot out on the wing removed him from play and added an extra step in the Timbers getting him the ball. Second, opposing teams have to respect Nagbe's ability to take players on, so by bringing him deeper in the formation the Timbers are dragging opposing defenders higher up the pitch, making more room for players like Diego Valeri in which to operate between the holding midfielders and back line of the Timbers' opponents.
It isn't all about Nagbe's play; the change in formation has set up others to succeed as well. Valeri, like any No. 10, is a player that thrives with just a little extra space to get off a quick through ball or taking on a defender one on one. Fanendo Adi, whose holdup play has been strong and getting stronger all year, is excelling more than ever at occupying defenders and playing short, simple passes for those around him. Even the Timbers' wide play has improved recently, with players like Dairon Asprilla, Rodney Wallace, and Lucas Melano all making an impact from out on the wings.
TL;DR: Yes, it is all about moving Nagbe central.
MR: When I look at these two, I see really similar teams in the way they lineup and how they play. Columbus fans know what Crew SC will want to do on Sunday, but what can they expect from Portland? From the Timbers perspective, do you think this will be a free-flowing match or will things get more cagey due to what's on the line?
SF: This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer about the Timbers this year. While previous iterations of the team have generally been pretty straightforward about their approach to the game, this year has been marked by a more flexible approach to each match from Porter.
In Portland plenty has been made of the team's more pragmatic -- Porter's chosen descriptor -- approach to the game this year, but with the hurdles that the Timbers have had to overcome this year pragmatism was certainly called for. Missing Diego Valeri for the first third of the season, then losing him again to a turned ankle just when it looked like he was finding his form; missing Will Johnson for half of the season; and missing Ben Zemanski for the whole season gutted the Timbers' midfield and required drastic changes to the way that the Timbers approached the game.
Of course, as the season has gone on the Timbers have been able to move back toward being the free-flowing, attacking team that fans here love to watch, but they have not lost the lessons learned in the early going of the season, when the team was kept in game after game thanks to one of the league's strongest defenses. It was a lesson we saw applied recently, early in the playoffs as the Timbers hosted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Conference Semifinals.
On three days of rest and facing a team sputtering in the attack but still capable of quick, dangerous breaks down the pitch, the Timbers decided to lock it down and control the pace of the game, dominating the possession against the Whitecaps, but only selectively looking to launch attacks forward down the pitch. The Timbers managed the game and kept the Whitecaps from grabbing an away goal, leaving them in a good spot for the second leg in what Timbers fans like to think of as "Our House in the Middle of BC".
So, turning our eyes to Sunday's MLS Cup Final, how will the Timbers approach this one? This seems like the sort of match that the Timbers will want to take the game to their opponents in. Never shy on the road, the Timbers have no problem pressing forward and putting teams on the back foot, something that seems to unsettle many home teams in MLS.
MR: Caleb Porter is someone a lot of people in Ohio are familiar due to his success as the head coach at Akron. Since he took over in 2013, what has he meant to the Timbers? What impact has he made with the team that has led the club to MLS Cup this year?
SF: Since his arrival in the Rose City three years ago, Porter has turned around a Timbers team that was floundering (not a word we use lightly around here) and made them into a respectable, tight-knit group that knows how to win. Under Porter the Timbers are 41-25-36, compared to the team's record of 19-30-19 under previous head coach John Spencer and the brief reign of general manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson.
In three years the Timbers have five fewer losses than in the two before that. That is pretty good.
When Porter arrived in Portland back at the start of the 2013 season, there was an adjustment period. Rodney Wallace was getting time as a holding midfielder and fullback, Mikael Silvestre and Andrew Jean-Baptiste were the starting pair at centerback, and Kalif Alhassan was a regular starter out on the wing. That start was a rocky one, with the Timbers going four games without a win to start the season. But, as Porter got to know his players and his players got to know him, things started to click.
The narrative surrounding Porter since his arrival in Portland is that he is a system-first guy, a train of thought not helped by the advent of "Porterball" back in 2013. However, more than anything Porter is a coach who knows how to get the most out of his players and how to get them to come together to create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Never has that ability to get the most out of what is available been more evident than in 2015. In a year when unknowns like George Fochive, Taylor Peay, and Dairon Asprilla have stepped up for the team in a big way, both as emergency replacements or regular starters, the Timbers have rarely missed a beat and, more importantly, the team never fractured, sticking together and staying confident even during those scary weeks when they dipped below the red line.
You can find Massive Report's questions to Stumptown Footy over on their page.