The 2015 MLS Cup Final was supposed to be a coronation of Columbus Crew SC. Gregg Berhalter’s team tied for the third-best record in the Major League Soccer regular season and one of the hottest clubs entering the postseason. The Crew overcame two deficits in the MLS Cup playoffs to defeat Didier Drogba and the Montreal Impact and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls to reach the Black & Gold’s second championship game.
Throughout the season, the offense became one of the best in MLS, led by forward Kei Kamara, who tied for the most goals in the league and was a Most Valuable Player finalist, attacking midfielder Federico Higuain and wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram. Berhalter’s possession-based system was anchored by Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani in the midfield. Captain Michael Parkhurst led the backline, partnered with Gaston Sauro and with Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis pushing up the flanks as wing backs. Goalkeeper Steve Clark, and his popular “Yes!” chant, was a fan-favorite in front of the Nordecke.
This led to hosting the 2015 MLS Cup Final at MAPFRE Stadium against Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers, the Western Conference’s third season.
The celebrations for the game led all the way up to the Dec. 6 afternoon kick off. But they did not last long for Crew fans.
Just 27 seconds into the final, Columbus was on the wrong side of history when Clark took an extra touch that turned into a Diego Valeri goal, the fastest in MLS Cup history. The adrenaline and excitement of playing in, and hosting, the MLS Cup Final faded. The early deficit changed the body language of the men in yellow.
At the six minute and 24 second mark, Tchani let the ball roll out of play near the halfway line, but there was no whistle. Portland’s Darlington Nagbe, who continued playing the ball, led the Timbers on the attack and Rodney Wallace scored for Portland 10 seconds later. A dream Crew playoff push turned into a nightmare. As drinks rained down from the Nordecke on the celebrating Timbers players, the Black & Gold were down 2-0, and quickly.
Eleven minutes later, Portland goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey committed an error of his own, misplaying a ball in the air that allowed Kamara to capitalize and bring Columbus to within one. The final whistle blew 70 match minutes later, with the scoreline stuck at 2-1. Portland celebrated the team’s first, and only, MLS Cup championship in front of thousands of traveling supporters on the field of MAPFRE Stadium.
But what if the Crew handled the opening few minutes better? What if Steve Clark cleared the ball? What if the referee gave the Black & Gold a throw-in? What if a different no call got a whistle? What if a lucky Columbus Crew bounce wasn’t so lucky?
The meeting between Gregg Berhalter and Caleb Porter was a matchup of two of the league’s best tacticians. Porter’s game plan was evident early, looking to press high and take advantage of the Crew’s possession out of the back, specifically when it came to Clark in goal.
In this alternate reality, Trapp passes the ball back to Steve Clark and he has the awareness, and lighter touch, to keep the ball close. Instead of watching the ball, he better prepares for the charging Valeri. Like the beginning of many matches, this charge to the goalkeeper is just another means of a player loosening up their legs than a match-changing first goal. Holding onto possession allows the Black & Gold to keep to their game plan, takes the control away from Portland and keeps supporters’ morale high.
With Columbus and Portland level 0-0 just under six and a half minutes into the game, the ball goes out without a whistle. Humans referee matches and humans make mistakes. Tchani and Meram aren’t happy with the assistant referee and the other players track back on defense. In this version of events, when Lucas Melano sends in a cross to Rodney Wallace, Timbers forward Fanendo Adi is whistled offside.
Why is Adi offside? In 2015, PRO referee Corey Rockwell shared an alteration to their interpretation of the FIFA offside rule. Using the FIFA phrase, Adi “impacts the ability” of the defenders and goalkeeper to position themselves. The forward makes a run to the goal and his charge forward, offside, allowed Wallace to sneak in behind Parkhurst, who is looking at the ball coming in and Adi. Not only is the match still scoreless, but cans are still allowed in the Nordecke to this day.
In the 18th minute, Kamara capitalizes on the Timbers’ goalkeeper error. When the ball falls to Kamra in the penalty box, he holds it up and fires the ball into the net. The Crew is up 1-0 going into the half.
In the final seconds of the 60th minute, Portland has a corner kick at the south end. In in the MLS Cup you watched, Wallace got the ball at his feet, right in front of Clark. Kamara attempted to clear the ball off the line and the ball strikes the chest of Michael Parkhurst, followed by a nervy strike to the bottom side of the crossbar. In this alternate MLS Cup, the ball goes in to tie the match at 1-1.
Pressure versus possession continues for the remaining 30 minutes. The Crew bring in Jack McInerny for offensive help and Hector Jimenez to solidify the midfield. As the final whistle blows, the score remains 1-1.
History shows, 10 of the 24 MLS Cup Finals have gone to extra time, and four of those matches were decided by penalty kicks. In extra time, Cedrick Mabwati is brought off the bench with both clubs are playing on legs. Cedrick’s impact helps Columbus, just as it did with his assist to Kamara in the Eastern Conference semifinals, to a 2-1 lead on a Meram goal in the 96th minute.
The lead holds and the Crew celebrates its second league championship in a sea of Columbus supporters.
2016 and Beyond
Unfortunately, in this “what if” world, the For Columbus kits still exist, holding their place as potentially the worst Crew kits in club history, but look a lot nicer with a second star above the crest.
In the real world, the 2016 season was rough for fashion and soccer. The Black & Gold lost matches and team chemistry. On the brink of a hat trick, Kamara and Higuain scuffled on the field, and Kamara is traded to the New England Revolution, changing the course of Crew history.
The alternate reality of the 2016 Columbus season is better. Coming off a championship high can create a dip in performance. Winning consistently in a league of parity is difficult, but a happier locker room leads to a better on-field product. Like in reality, the new names do not come flooding into Columbus following the championship. Columbus makes the 2016 MLS Cup playoffs with a happy Kamara, but is not able to make it back to the MLS Cup Final, losing in the conference semifinals.
A big “what if” is what does Berhalter do with his career? Is there a change of scenery after winning a title? No. It’s not likely. Back in 2016, the United States Men’s National Team had Jurgen Klinsmann running the team and it wasn’t until near the end of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs that Klinsmann was terminated from his role after losing 2-1 to Mexico and 4-0 to Costa Rica in the span of just a few days.
Even with an MLS Cup win under his belt, Berhalter is not the candidate of choice for a team halfway through a World Cup cycle, when qualification is on the line. Unless a European team lures him away, Berhalter stays in Columbus.
Porter’s trajectory does not differ much from the real world in this other reality. Instead of missing the playoffs by two points in 2016, the Timbers make it into the postseason. After losing in extra time in the 2015 MLS Cup Final, the Timbers come back with a stronger punch. While the team does not win the 2016 MLS Cup, the Timbers are able to reach the pinnacle of MLS by not only leading the 2017 Western Conference, but bring a first trophy to Portland that year.
Soon after their victory, Porter resigns from his post as head coach of the Timbers. As differences between himself and club owner Merritt Paulson continue, Porter still elects it’s time to depart.
As for Gregg Berhalter, he is still named the head coach of the U.S. National Team following the 2017 MLS season. His coaching record, and U.S. Soccer connections, make sense for his hiring. And winning an MLS Cup definitely didn’t hurt.
In this scenario, the Crew play a more confident game in the 2015 Final and bring the team’s second championship to the city. That season and the final at MAPFRE Stadium give fans a better memory to reflect on when thinking back.