MLS Cup 2015 Preview
Sunday’s MLS Cup between Columbus Crew vs Portland Timbers was the final that fans really were not expecting. But nonetheless, these two made it through and now it’s time to show who is the best in MLS. Let’s break it down by positions.
Columbus Crew’s keeper, Steve Clark, has not been tested too much in the playoffs, until the waning moments in the Eastern Conference Finals vs New York Red Bulls. It was there that he showed his stuff and proved why he has been a reliable piece to the Crew this season. He has made some big saves, but will be tested to the limit when he faces off against Portland’s attack-minded team. On top of being an in-form goalkeeper, he also happens to have an awesome celebration after a Crew victory.
Portland Timber’s keeper Adam Kwarasey has been the best keeper in the playoffs so far. He has stepped up when the team needed him most. Whether it was in a penalty shootout against Sporting Kansas City in the first round, or stopping FC Dallas’ fury of attack in the final minutes to clinch a trip to MLS Cup, Kwarasey has been clutch. During the regular season, he was tied for the most clean sheets with 13. He also will be pushed to the limit with Columbus Crew’s man, Kei Kamara, who has been dominant in the playoffs and is the league leader in the goals department. Kwarasey will have to communicate effectively to his back line in order to keep Columbus’ chances at a minimum.
The Crew have been okay at the back throughout most of the season and into the playoffs. Coming into this match, they have allowed 58 goals, the second worst among playoff teams, but have proven strong in crunch time. They did hold the New York Red Bulls scoreless for 183 minutes in their Eastern Conference clash. Look for their anchor Michael Parkhurst to keep the red-hot Timbers offense to finish few chances. From October on, they have allowed less than a goal per game, and need to have an efficient performance if they expect to win.
Portland’s defense has been phenomenal all season. They allowed the second fewest goals in MLS with just 39. Led by their bearded field marshal Nat Borchers, expect the Crew’s chances to be far and few between. If Liam Ridgewell is healthy, and their wingers, Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell, the Timbers defense could prove a daunting task for Columbus. Portland has allowed only 5 goals in the postseason including a shutout of Vancouver, and with a back line like theirs, it could be key come Sunday.
The Cup will be won and lost in the midfield, it is as simple as that.
Columbus has reached the Cup final thanks to the efforts of players like Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani. The Crew’s wingers are stacked to the brim with future USMNT talent in Ethan Finlay and Justin Meriam, with a young-gun in Cedrick Mabwati coming off the bench. They also have a heavily experienced player and another man for Portland to be concerned about with Federico Higuain. The 25-year-old Finlay broke out this season with 10 goals and 13 assists, starting every game for the Crew this season. He could play a huge factor.
Although the Crew are loaded with talent in the middle of the pitch, do not overlook Portland. The Timbers have been clinical when it comes to making that final pass to their forward, and their attack-minded play will prove how good they are. Diego Chara has been pestering teams all year, and look for him to do that again on Sunday. The Timbers also have Argentine Diego Valeri as well as recent USMNT call up Darlington Nagbe. If the Timbers are to beat the Crew, they will need to front-load these guys and ensure that they play to a whole different level against them.
There is a “cereal” concern that “Special K” will wreak havoc on the Timbers. No, not the actual cereal, that’s Kei Kamara’s nickname. Kamara has had an MVP-like season, and while stats are important, they do not do justice. Kamara has scored in 22 matches, tied with the actual MLS MVP in Sebastian Giovinco. In the playoffs, Kamara has been just about the hottest striker in the country, scoring three goals when they mattered most. He has the speed and the skills to erupt at any time and if he is able to break through a very sturdy Portland defense, it will surely be an exciting match.
On the other side, there is Fanendo Adi, who has been just as dominant for Portland. He is the type of striker that forces defenses to collapse on him, making his passes as valuable as his shots. He has scored two goals in the playoffs, one of which sent last year’s champions, the LA Galaxy, home, and the other secured a spot in MLS Cup. He has been a reliable source for the Timbers and he can score when teams least expect it. He is always a threat to watch out for.
Both managers are up-and-coming and the experience has helped them get to this point. Look out for on the fly strategy changes, and how will the other manager react? It could make all the difference in determining the champion.
Columbus has a coach who simply finds ways to make it work. Whether it be giving Wil Trapp or Ethan Finlay a chance, or putting Kei Kamara up front, Gregg Berhalter has found ways to get the job done. His tactics of bulking up the midfield have paid dividends into a system which is all about a possession-based build up starting from the midfield. The 42-year-old knows not only when a sub needs to come on, but which one, a tactic that has been crucial in these playoffs. His tactical genius has been noticed by many, and may get a tap from Jurgen Klinsmann in the future to be an assistant coach for the Stars and Stripes. Sunday could prove to be a springboard for Berhalter’s future, and if he employs the proper tactics, it could go a long way in ensuring his success as star manager in the making.
On the other side of the touch line is Caleb Porter, the man who has led the Timbers since 2013. Although this will be Porter’s first MLS Cup, it can also be a springboard into a promising career. That was not the case in mid-summer, when he was on the hot seat for not getting good enough results. That has changed dramatically, and the Timbers have made an impressive run to get to the Cup final. Porter has been a master when it comes to dealing with unexpected situations such as suspensions and injuries. He has made key changes down the stretch that have helped pave the Timbers way. Without disrupting on-field chemistry, Porter has placed the right man at the right position and they have found ways to get important results. Porter will be a successful MLS coach and look for him in the future.
I think this MLS Cup will not disappoint, and will finish with a match for the ages. Columbus has too much strength in the midfield and will finally crack Portland’s rock-solid defense. If the match was in the Rose City, which the people of Portland proclaim to be the soccer capital of the United States, the outcome would be totally in favor of the Timbers. Since it is in Columbus in early December, the weather will play a factor. I just think that Columbus will be able to break down Portland’s final third of the field, and will control possession. “Special K” will come through and deliver the MLS Cup to Columbus.
Prediction: Columbus 2, Portland 1. (After Extra Time.)