After a nine-month long season, the MLS will hold its final match on Sunday, with the Columbus Crew hosting the Portland Timbers. At the onset of the season, the odds of the Crew to win the Cup were 15-1, while the Timbers were longer shots at 20-1. With the top four cups favored to win the Cup long eliminated (L.A. Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and D.C. United), we take a look at the two finalists, how they got to the final match and who will be hoisting the Cup Sunday evening.
How They Got Here
Finishing in second place in the Eastern Conference earned the Crew a bye in the initial knockout game. They squeaked by in home and away matches against the Montreal Impact by an aggregate score of 4-3, then beat a tough New York Red Bulls squad by a similarly close aggregate score of 2-1. For the Timbers, their road was more complicated. They managed to advance out of the knockout stage by beating Sporting Kansas City after 120 minutes and eleven rounds of penalty kicks. They beat the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 in aggregate play, then defeated first place FC Dallas 5-3 in aggregate play to earn the right to challenge for the Cup.
Since their inaugural season in MLS in 1994, the Crew have won the MLS Cup once. They defeated the New York Red Bulls 3-1 in 2008, largely due to the play of international superstar Barros Schelotto in their only Cup appearance since their inception in MLS. For Portland, they were awarded an MLS franchise after four decades as a minor league soccer team in 2011. The Timbers had a short-lived appearance in the MLS playoffs in 2013 but exited early, making this match their first appearance in the Cup finals.
Keys to the Match
While neither team has publically ruled out any player due to injury, it was reported that Columbus striker Kei Kamara suffered a right leg injury in practice earlier in the week. While he did leave the field on his own power, Crew manager Gregg Berhalter said afterwards that if the injury proved to be serious, he would have to alter his game plan. However, his likely replacement would be Jack McInerney, who is also capable of igniting the offense. With midfielder Federico Higuain spearheading the offense for the Crew, expect Columbus to be the more aggressive team. For Portland, their strength is in their defense, having ceded only 39 goals in the regular season vs 53 for Columbus. Their offensive is supported by central midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who’s been moved to this position earlier in the year as support for the Timbers strikers. Up front, the man to watch is Fanendo Adi, who has scored 23 goals in 33 regular season matches. Look for the Timbers to try to take advantage of a quick counter-attack from their defensive third of the pitch, using their blazing speed up front.
The X-Factors in the Match
For the Crew, it remains to be seen whether their stout but aging back line will be able to absorb the pressure from the blazing speed of the front line of Portland. The Timbers will need to minimize the time of ball possession of the Crew while minimizing their goal scoring opportunities. Let’s not discount the value of the hometown fans, either. The game will be played in Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, giving an edge to the Crew.
Both teams advanced in their last series by showing a side of their game that many had not seen before. Portland, for example, scored five times in their two matches against FC Dallas. Columbus beat the New York Red Bulls by ceding just one goal in two matches. In this Cup final, however, expect both teams to rely on their strengths, with Columbus applying offensive pressure and the Timbers absorbing it and responding with a quick-paced counter-attack.
The combination of a strong front line and a vocal home crowd will prove to be too much for the Portland Timbers to overcome, however, and they will fall to the Crew 3-1.