The 20th Major League Soccer season will reach its climax on Sunday when the Columbus Crew hosts the Portland Timbers for MLS Cup. While the league has embraced an increasing number of star designated players in recent times, two clubs with relatively small wage bills and whose success has been very much based around work ethic rather than highly paid individuals that will contest its biggest prize.
The Columbus Crew’s sole designated player is Federico Higuaín, the brother of Argentina and Napoli star Gonzalo, who arrived in 2012. But, in fitting with the ethos, he hasn’t grabbed the headlines often himself this season, but has played a key role in facilitating the success of his teammates.
Chief among those has been Kei Kamara. The 31-year-old striker has bounced around several MLS club in his career as well as enjoying short spells in England with Norwich City and Middlesbrough. But this year has been his best yet, seeing him finish the regular season as the league’s joint top scorer with 22 goals as Columbus claimed second place in the Eastern Conference. The Sierra Leone international has continued that form into the playoffs, scoring twice to help oust the Montreal Impact before netting in a 2-1 aggregate win over Supporters’ Shield winners the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Championship.
Columbus, which won its only MLS Cup in 2008, has enjoyed a swift rise under coach Gregg Berhalter, who has led them to back-to-back playoff appearances following two barren years prior to his arrival. He has also earned praise for the team’s forward-thinking style, which saw it finish as the second top scorers in MLS during the regular season.
“It’s not my style of play, it’s our style of play,” Berhalter said in the lead up to the final, according to MLSSoccer.com. “The players deserve all the credit for what’s happening. They’ve embraced it, and they’ve really put themselves out there, because you expose yourself sometimes and you have to keep pushing and keep daring to fail. The guys have done a great job of that.”
In Caleb Porter, Berhalter will come up against another of MLS’ up-and-coming coaches. In 2013, in the 40-year-old’s debut season, he led the expansion team into the playoffs for the first time. And, after a step backward last year, he has now brought Portland to its first MLS Cup.
The Timbers, blessed with one of the league’s most passionate fan bases, produced a late season surge to make the playoffs as the third-placed team in the Western Conference. And it has continued that rich vein of form into the post-season. After eliminating Sporting Kansas City in a dramatic penalty shootout, Portland secured impressive victories over the Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas.
While Porter’s men, due to possessing a weaker record in the regular season, will be at a disadvantage in having to travel to Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium, the Timbers have been strong on the road. Only one team had a better away record in the regular season and Portland has not suffered a defeat in its last five away matches.
The recent upturn in form has been aided by a system shift that has seen Darlington Nagbe moved into the central attacking midfield role and produced performances that have earned him a call up to the United States national team. And with his team thriving, Porter now has his sights set on the ultimate prize.
“When we started the year, we wanted to get into the playoffs and win a trophy,” he said, reports Reuters. “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.”
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. EST
TV channel: ESPN, UniMás