It’s a final few will have predicted at the outset of the playoffs, but it will be the Columbus Crew that host the Portland Timbers with the 2015 Major League Soccer Cup on the line next Sunday. Both teams saw off No. 1 seeds in the Eastern and the Western Conference Championships, with Portland and Columbus clinging onto advantages on the road against FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, respectively.
Adding to the surprise nature of the matchup, the two teams have just one previous appearance in MLS Cup between them. Columbus Crew lifted the trophy for the only time in its history in 2008, when also defeating the Red Bulls.
On Sunday the Crew required the intervention of the post in the dying seconds to prevent extra time and secure another famous victory over the team from New York. But there was little fortunate about its victory over the two matches. A 2-0 victory over the Supporters Shield winners in Ohio set the stage for victory, and for the vast majority of the return match at Red Bull Arena it was Columbus that was again in control.
Coach Gregg Berhalter showed his tactical nous to frustrate and nullify a Red Bulls team that had not only secured MLS’ best record in the regular season, but also finished as the league’s top scorers. While organized and compact without the ball, the Crew also continually carried a forward threat through joint top-scorer in the regular season, Kei Kamara, Argentinian schemer Federico Higuaín and wide men Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay. The quartet will be a major threat to Portland in the final, and Berhalter was quick to insist after Sunday’s win that his team is far from content with picking up the Eastern Conference Championship trophy
“We’re not finished,” he said. “We have our sights set on next week. The guys will enjoy tonight and then we’ll get back to work. What I’m most proud of is that we get to bring the MLS final to Columbus. The fans have been behind us all year, you see the excitement that was building in these playoff matches, and now for us to be able to play the final in Columbus is special.”
Home advantage may not be the decisive factor Columbus will hope it to be, however. The Crew’s home record in the regular season was the worst of the six teams to make the playoffs out of the Eastern Conference, while the Portland Timbers had the second best road record in all of MLS, including getting a victory at Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium. And Caleb Porter’s team has taken that away form into the playoffs.
After securing a 2-0 victory in Vancouver to beat the Whitecaps in the Conference semifinals, the Timbers then got a 2-2 draw in Texas to ease its way through to a first MLS Cup final in the team’s fifth year of existence. Leading 3-1 from the first match, Portland looked to be cruising to victory after top-scorer Fanendo Adi opened the scoring in the return. But Dallas fought back to get within one goal of taking the series into extra time, before Lucas Melano came off the bench to net decisively in injury time.
Like the man he will come up against in the final, Porter has shown an ability to adapt and make positive alterations to his lineup. The crucial adjustment has been switching Darlington Nagbe into a central attacking midfield role, a position that has seen him become the focal point of the team’s play and earn him a call up for the United States national team. It has also helped the Timbers become the form team of MLS at just the right time. Portland has won six and drawn two of its last eight games, to make real fears that the team might miss out on a playoff spot altogether seem like a distant memory.
“When we started the year, we wanted to get into the playoffs and win a trophy,” Porter said, reports MLSSoccer.com. “That was the goal, and here we are. We’ve won one, and now we want to win the big one. So it’s very satisfying.”
Prediction: It is a contest that is almost too close to call. Neither team has the biggest stars, but has shown an ability to function superbly as team units. But two things could shift the balance toward Columbus. The first is home advantage, which, while not as significant as some other final matchups, still gives the Crew an edge. There is also the fitness of both squads. While Columbus looks set to be at full strength, Portland has doubts over Liam Ridgewell and Adi, who are key men at either end of the field. While it would be a surprise, given the magnitude of the occasion, were both not to make it onto the field, whether they are fully fit is another matter. It could go right to the wire, but Columbus may just have the edge to secure a second MLS Cup.
Predicted score: Columbus Crew 2-1 Portland Timbers