Major League Soccer
MLS Cup Prediction: Crew Will Prevail Over Timbers
December 05, 2015
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER will conclude its 20th season on Sunday when the Columbus Crew host the Portland Timbers in front of what will be a packed MAPFRE Stadium. While it might lack big-name stars, the contest should be enticing as it features the two best teams over the past two months.
Portland will be making its first appearance in MLS Cup since joining the league in 2011. Over that time it has enjoyed boisterous local support and constant sellout crowds. While the team struggled for the first half of 2015, it came to life in September when coach Caleb Porter implemented a tactical switch to get U.S. national team midfielder Darlington Nagbe into the middle of the field. Since then, it has been dominant—particularly on the road where it has lost just once in eight games.
The Crew, on the other hand, has shown terrific organization in the playoffs, defeating a Didier Drogba-led Montreal Impact and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls who boasted the league’s best offense in the regular season.
In other words, this game is a total toss-up with neither team being a clear-cut favorite. Here is what to watch for.
The Central midfield battle
Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri will play leading roles on Sunday. Porter recently told me that the “two together are a perfect number 10 and number 8.” The way they have played backs it up. Nagbe, in particular, has been very good even if he gave the ball away more times than he would have liked in the second leg against Dallas.
The problem for Portland is that the Crew is well versed in containing central midfielders. Columbus boasts a triangle of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp in back of Federico Higuain who serves as a playmaker. Against New York, those three took Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, and Luis Felipe out of the series for 180 minutes.
Columbus is an attacking team but against New York it was willing to play a defensive style that was effective (albeit unpleasant to watch). It clogged up hopes in the midfield and suffocated the Red Bull attack. The Crew's best goal-scoring opportunities were few and far between, but the team was clinical with its chances.
Portland has the talent to win the midfield battle and control the game, but it is also going to need a bit of magic too. Against Dallas, Dairon Asprilla hit a wonder goal to give it momentum for the return leg. Lucas Melano showed fantastic individual skill in his series sealing goal.
It will take a team effort for either team to win, but individual moments or magic or even luck could be the difference in such an evenly matched contest.
Providing Service to the Strikers
The Crew has so far shut down two of the league’s best target forwards in the playoffs—Didier Drogba and Bradley Wright-Phillips. To win the title, it will have to complete a trifecta and shut down Portland’s Fanendo Adi who is questionable for the game with a calf contusion but it is just hard to see him missing a game of this magnitude.
The Crew boast a top striker too, Kei Kamara, who was named to the league’s Best XI after a 22-goal season.
The key to containing these players will be cutting off the service. Columbus did this beautifully against Wright-Phillips when it took wingers Mike Grella, Lloyd Sam, and Gonzalo Veron out of the game.
The advantage here goes to Columbus. To open up Adi, it is going to take a Plan B approach from Portland.
Attacking Portland's Wingers
Columbus boasts two of the best wingers in the league with Justin Meram and MLS Best XI honoree Ethan Finlay. The problem, however, is that neither had a great series against the Red Bulls outside of their combination to score 10 seconds into the first leg.
It should be a concern that Finlay and Meram look tired after their busiest seasons in their careers. Finlay has already surpassed 3,200 minutes in 2015—a career high by a large margin. Similarly, Meram will surpass 3,000 minutes this year—including his international minutes for Iraq’s national team—breaking his previous high of around 2,000 minutes.
The wear and tear could be a factor. The problem for Columbus is that both Meram and Finlay are major components in the team's attack. When the game opens up, they provide speed. Most importantly, they are on the hook to provide Kamara with service.
For the Crew to win, Finlay and Meram will have to be on the top of their games as the central midfield will be knotted up. On paper, it should be the biggest advantage for Columbus over Portland. When factoring in Columbus' fullback play, which has been strong, the home team's advantage becomes even greater. Finlay said after the Red Bulls series that he likes his match up against Timbers left back Jorge Villafana. He will now have to back up those words.
It will be very interesting to see how effective Finlay and Meram are and if they can establish possession early. If they cay, it could be a tough day for Portland.
I expect a close and even contest, with both teams having opportunities to win. But there can only be one champion and I predict the Columbus Crew will defeat the Portland Timbers, 2-1, in extra time.