Two Goals in Seven Minutes Lift Timbers to MLS Title
December 06, 2015
COLUMBUS, Ohio—The 20th season of Major League Soccer concluded Sunday with the Portland Timbers defeating the Columbus Crew, 2-1 on the strength of two early goals—a first-minute stunner from Diego Valeri and a Rodney Wallace strike six minutes later.
The game was exciting even if it featured some moments of poor quality. Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark’s error on the opening goal was awful and the officiating was atrocious on multiple occasions, especially the linesman’s no-call on the second.
But Portland, which joined the league in 2011, is a worthy champion. The team has played phenomenal soccer since the end of September, and Caleb Porter built himself a complete, consistent team without many weaknesses. MLS is a league of parity, to be sure, but the Timbers were the best of the bunch when it mattered the most.
Here are my thoughts on the final game of the 2015 campaign.
Portland showed remarkable focus
Every championship team leaves behind a legacy and the 2015 Portland Timbers are no exception. This team that raised its game consistently since September and into the playoffs, where each round of the playoffs became more difficult.
In particular, Portland was simply able to get results on the road—where it played its best soccer. That requires mental strength and organization and that is how this team will be remembered.
Jorge Villafana’s stock is soaring
Many soccer pundits are talking about Darlington Nagbe’s rise over the past few months, or the impact Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi have made. Those players haven been among the best in the league, of course, but Jorge Villafana also has seen his stock quietly soar as Portland has continued its success.
The former United States youth international has been terrific at left back, where he helped contain Fabian Castillo in the Western Conference final and then Ethan Finlay in MLS Cup. Villafana, 26, has played so well that he is firmly within reach of earning a call-up to the full national team for January camp. Against Columbus, he completely turned Finlay into a non-factor.
Any player can look like a star on any given occasion, but Villafana has been trending this way for most of the season. He looks to be the real deal.
Finlay and Meram struggled
Columbus lost this game because of an inability to play to its strengths. Wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay were among the best offensive tandems in MLS this season, and together they opened up the game—not just for themselves but for the rest of their team as well.
But the two simply did not have it Sunday afternoon.
To be fair, both Finlay and Meram look exhausted. This was the first season either had been a key figure, and neither was accustomed to the wear and tear associated with being a first-team regular.
Still, Finlay is likely to get a chance with the U.S. national team soon, and Meram is another who wants to be a top MLS player. The best in this league routinely hit these levels of minutes, and Finlay and Meram need to adjust going forward. Next year will be an important test for both.
Columbus will be back
The Crew failed to win MLS Cup but it will certainly be a contender next season. Most of its core is returning, and as Gregg Berhalter prepares to enter his third year as a coach, expectations will only increase.
Playing in the weaker Eastern Conference certainly helps. But what’s also clear is that Berhalter is a good coach with a clear system that his players stick to in an organized fashion. When Columbus was giving up too many goals, Berhalter fixed the problem both in his tactics and by adding players like Ghanaian right back Harrison Afful. The result? A win over a Montreal team many thought unstoppable.
Columbus very much looks like a team on the rise. It will be fascinating to see if Berhalter and company can reach greater heights in 2016.