COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a year dominated by superstar additions, it is two balanced teams missing big international names that will vie for Major League Soccer’s ultimate prize.
The Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers will battle at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday afternoon in the MLS Cup Final, and a major talking point going into the match will be the status of Kei Kamara. Kamara suffered a leg injury during the final parts of the Crew’s final training session on Saturday, and has been labeled a game-time decision.
While the Crew would undoubtedly be hurt by the loss of Kamara, the match would still be a tight one given how closely the two clubs resemble one another. Both teams have similar styles with similar personnel, deploying a lone striker up top to get service from the Argentinian playmaker and talented wide players on both flanks.
Sunday’s showdown will be the epitome of a chess match.
“I think you’re going to have to two teams that are very complete and balanced, both sides of the ball,” said Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. “We’re going to attack, so you’ll see some of that. They’re going to attack. They’re going to be organized defensively and so are we. I think it’s going to be a really exciting game. I don’t think either team is going to just sit back. Both teams are going to attack, but neither team will be reckless.”
Of the two clubs, it is the Timbers that are entering in better form. The Timbers not only made it through their conference semifinals series by a larger margin – defeating FC Dallas by a 5-3 aggregate score – but they also have gone eight straight matches without losing. What is just as impressive is the club’s goal differential, as it has scored 19 times during that stretch while conceding only eight.
The Crew do not enter on the same type of run, but still have looked good more often than not in recent weeks. Gregg Berhalter’s side took care of the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls, 2-1, in the last round, and was much more dominant in that two-legged series than the scoreline indicates.
Helping its cause is that Sunday’s match will be played in front of a sold-out Columbus crowd, giving the Crew a true homefield advantage from which it can draw energy.
“The bigger the crowd, the bigger the atmosphere, the more that we can gain from them,” said Crew captain Michael Parkhurst. “There’s periods of games where you need a little lift, and hopefully the crowd is there for us when we need it. We expect them to be.”
That could prove to be the difference given that there are so many similarities from a personnel standpoint. Whereas the Timbers have Alves Powell and Jorge Villafana impressively manning the flanks, the Crew have the stout duo of Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis at the fullback spots. Ahead of them are Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, but on the other side there are Dairon Asprilla and Rodney Wallace. In the middle, the Crew boast Federico Higuain while the Timbers have Diego Valeri. Then there’s Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara, who will face Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani.
With so many similarities from a personnel standpoint, winning individual match-ups will be key. A lot of the talk leading up to the game has been about how the Timbers’ stingy defense plans to contain the red-hot Kamara, but the Western Conference club also boasts a talented striker with good athleticism that has been on a good run of form recently.
Fanendo Adi may not have finished the regular season with 22 goals like Kamara, but he had a respectable 16, including two vs. the Crew, before scoring twice more in the playoffs. His play has improved thanks in part to Porter’s highly-discussed tactical adjustments in midfield late in the year, and Crew centerbacks Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro are going to have a busy day at the office with the 6-foot-4 forward.
“Adi is a fantastic player. He’s a real handful,” said Parkhurst. “A lot like (Didier) Drogba, he’s a post-up player and a big boy. Most strikers are big boys when I compare myself to them, but Adi is even bigger. It’s going to be a tough task, but we’ve faced two very, very good strikers so far in the playoffs in Drogba and (Bradley) Wright-Phillips, so this is going to be no different.
“It’s going to be a collective effort. Gaston and I are going to man mark him and help each other out. We’re going to need help from our midfielders as he’s laying balls off. We know that he’s a handful in the box, so it’s going to take a lot of effort from guys blocking crosses and making it easier for us. Of course he’s going to win his fair share of balls, but hopefully we can keep those outside of the box.”
The Crew and Timbers met once this season, and it was not long ago. The regular-season fixture took place at MAPFRE Stadium back on Sept. 26, and it was the Timbers that prevailed, 2-1, thanks to a brace from Adi.
Some teams might look back at that game and discount it completely given that it happened more than two months ago and that playoff matches tend to be played at a different level of intensity. Both clubs are drawing at least something from it, however.
“I think it certainly plays a factor in our minds,” said Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter. “We’ve analyzed that game. We’ve looked at their strengths, we’ve looked at what we could have done better, but I think they’re two different teams now. If you see the run Portland went on since then, they’ve done a fantastic job. We know it’s a good team. If you look at us, I think we’ve progressed as well. We’ve had a lot of tough games from then and we’ve certainly gotten better.”
Both teams have talked throughout the week about trying to dictate the tempo of the final. Neither side intends to sit back and absorb pressure, not with so much at stake and with there being no tomorrow. For the Crew, a win would give them a second MLS Cup title and first since 2008. For the Timbers, victory would translate into their first league crown.
A year of hard work culminates on Sunday, and two talented and balanced teams with a lot of comparable qualities will be looking to find the difference en route to hoisting a trophy.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring a championship home to Columbus,” said Trapp. “You don’t get these opportunities very often.”
Said Nagbe: “Getting the cup would be the ultimate goal and the best feeling. That’s what you work towards from when you come into camp in January.”