MLS Cup Preview, Prediction: Columbus hosts Portland

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By RYAN BRISTER

Columbus Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers Sunday in the 20th MLS Cup Final. The game will be televised at 4 p.m. on ESPN and UniMas.


 

Columbus Crew SC (17-13-8, 64 GF, 46 GA): The hosts by virtue of a better goal difference during the regular season, Columbus rode one of the league’s top goalscorers to second place in the Eastern Conference. In a pair of difficult ties, Crew SC then did away with the Montreal Impact and New York Red Bulls to reach their second MLS Cup final. They won their previous appearance in the final, in 2008. This would be Columbus’ sixth major trophy in twenty years.

Portland Timbers (17-14-8, 50 GF, 44 GA): Portland came on strong at the end of a shaky season to finish third in the tough Western Conference. They escaped a wild knockout round game against Kansas City, then beat Vancouver and Dallas across two legs to win the West. The Timbers are seeking their first major trophy since joining MLS in 2011. In fact, no incarnation of the Timbers have won a title in any of the leagues they’ve participated in.

Odds and ends: The winner of MLS Cup will earn a berth to the next CONCACAF Champions League, joining Dallas, New York, SKC and Vancouver. Portland would be the tenth different club to win MLS Cup in the league’s 20 seasons. Don’t worry about a frigid final; the forecast calls for temperatures in the 50s.


 

Tactics: This is a particularly fun match-up because both Columbus and Portland play proactive, posession based soccer. But there are differences in how they go about that that. Crew SC play a 4-2-3-1 under Berhalter, and create a lot of damage from out wide, where speedy players are able to deliver crosses to the colossus of Kei Kamara. In the 4-1-2-3/4-1-4-1 formation Porter now uses, Portland prefers to play through the middle.

The layouts of their respective midfields create two key battles in the center of the pitch. Going forward for the Crew is Federico Higuain, pitted against Diego Chara, who sits alone in front of the Timbers’ back four. Higuain pops up all over the field, and will do his best to drag Chara out of his position. Chara, presumably, will do his best to foul Higuain and get away with it. That’s not a knock on Chara; his physical play is exactly what his position as destroyer calls for.

Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri play further up for Portland, trusting Chara to do the majority of the defensive work. They will face the pairing of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp. Tchani is the ball-winner of the duo, while Trapp distributes from deep; defense is not his strongest aspect. The youngster will be tested by the quicker Nagbe, and Tchani won’t always be able to slide over and help him. Trapp struggled in that role during the regular season.

Typically Columbus shows no hesitation to get the fullbacks involved in the attacks, but this is a risk against a team that also has speed on the flanks. It will be interesting to see if Berhalter is more cautious, or if Portland’s wingers can get into the spaces abandoned by Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful. At the other end, Jorge Villafana will be tasked with preventing Ethan Finlay from getting crosses into Kamara.

Fanendo Adi’s ability to play with his back to goal and shape the Timbers’ attack from the front will pose a challenge for Columbus’ center backs. His physicality and strength poses a threat to even the league’s best defenders, but Adi’s movement could be particularly dangerous against the Crew. Due to injury, Gaston Sauro has only been able to play six games alongside Michael Parkhurst; their communication will be important if they are to keep Adi in check.

Previously this season: The finalists played each other once during the regular season; a late September meeting in Columbus. The Timbers were in a slump at the time, having failed to win their previous four matches. The Crew, meanwhile, had won six of their previous eight games. Those trends would not play out on the field; Portland came away with a 2-1 road win.

The visitors came out strong, and probably should have had an early penalty when Trapp brought down Nagbe in the box. The Timbers would take the lead after 28 minutes when Nagbe played into the box and the big striker beat Steve Clark. Columbus leveled on a Kamara goal from a set piece just before halftime. Adi would score a second goal on a counter early in the second half, and Portland held on to win.

Both teams were reasonably healthy for the regular season meeting; the only major absence was Gaston Sauro, who was out for Columbus with a concussion. Tyson Wahl was in his place. Jack Jewsbury started for the Timbers in September, but more recently his spot in the lineup has been occupied by Dairon Asprilla or Lucas Melano.

Prediction: I think this is a very evenly matched final. Both teams have played very well to get this far, and they carry momentum into Sunday. Portland edged the regular season match, and perhaps this is counter-intuitive, but that’s why I favor Columbus on Sunday. Gregg Berhalter has shown a willingness to adapt his approach during these playoffs, and I think he’ll have a trick or two up his sleeve to avoid losing to the Timbers twice. Home-field advantage doesn’t hurt, either. So I’ll stick with my call from before the playoffs began: Crew SC 2-1 Timbers.