As hard as it is to believe, the Portland Timbers began their arduous journey to Sunday's MLS Cup Final almost 10 months ago, on a non-descript, unseasonably warm late-February afternoon, opening the pre-season Simple Tournament by losing 1-0 on a Pa Modou Kah header to Vancouver.
We’ve come a long way since.
Everything the Timbers have done, for better or worse, has lead them to Columbus, Ohio. On Sunday, a season filled with pitfalls and triumph, switchbacks and successes, retreads and progress, reveals one more twist before it ends: will the Timbers finish as Champions?
The Timbers' opponents, Eastern Conference champs Columbus Crew SC, are weirdly close to being Portland's twin side. Adi and Kamara up front are both target forwards who can score in a variety of ways. Tchani is to Columbus what Chara is to Portland, and Will Trapp was Darlington Nagbe’s heir apparent at Caleb Porter’s Akron. Diego Valeri and Federico Higuain – Argentine Maestros both – pull beautiful strings up front. We could go on.
Ultimately, this isn’t about matchups, it’s team vs. team, 90 minutes from The Goal.
But first, your vegetables.
Why Columbus Can Win
The value of Home Field cannot be understated. One team is sleeping in their own beds and training at their facility on their equipment; the other is Portland. In an evenly-matched game, little breaks usually make all the difference, and the more comfortable team tends to get them.
Columbus is exceptionally solid through the middle. Playing a 4-2-3-1 that any Timbers supporter would recognize, coach Gregg Berhalter deploys Tchani and Trapp behind the excellent trio of Justin Meram, Higuain, and Ethan Finlay. Those three combined for 26 goals and 27 assists. That’s insane balance. In fact, Columbus led MLS with six players recording five or more assists. Combined with two attack-minded fullbacks, Waylon Francis (34 crosses, 7 assists) and Harrison Afful (13 crosses, 2 assists in only 9 games), Columbus can and will get forward and try to exploit Portland’s clearest weakness: crosses into the box.
That’s all before you get to Kei Kamara. The 31-year-old striker established himself as a force in MLS after returning from a less-than-productive sojourn in England with Norwich and Middlesbrough. Since his return with Columbus, Kamara has scored 25 times in 33 appearances. His 22 goals were joint-top of the league (with Giovinco), landing him on the MVP shortlist. In the air, only Ridgewell or Borchers (or Kwarasey, thankfully) can compete. The fewer chances he gets, the better.
The transition to Portland’s keys to victory begins with a discussion of Columbus’s back end. If the Timbers have one clear advantage, it’s the three guys in the middle—two centerbacks and the keeper. Fringe USMNT defender Michael Parkhurst and his partner of all of seven total games, 25-year-old Argentine Gastòn Sauro, anchor a defense which conceded an astonishing 53 goals in 2015. Only Toronto (58)—if you even count them—gave up more among playoff teams; no Western team conceded more than 49. Portland allowed 39. Goalkeeper Steve Clark finished with the second-most saves in the league, but only recorded six clean sheets, 13th overall. With so much else being even, Portland’s defensive advantage could prove the difference.
Why Portland Will Win
No team in MLS finished stronger than Portland. The roster is firing on all cylinders, the single-pivot formation has unleashed Chara to terrorize opposing midfields, and the absolute buy-in of Caleb Porter’s tactics have lead to nothing but positive results. In their last eight games, Portland has won six, without a loss.
It’s an old adage in Sport, but especially so in our North American playoff-laden leagues: if you get hot at the right time, you can win it all. Well, this team is as hot as they come. The naysayers might call this luck, but don’t be bothered with that negativity. That defeatist Portlander/Oregonian feeling you have seeping out of the depths of your subconscious: ignore it.
Let’s talk turkey for a moment. Actually, defense. With these teams so evenly matched throughout the front-five and at fullback, it leaves three critical spots, centerbacks and keeper, where Portland has a decided advantage. Liam Ridgewell, Nat Borchers, and Adam Kwarasey backboned a defense that leaked the second-fewest in MLS and lead the league in clean sheets. The former two embody the experienced defenders for which the Timbers had been crying out for years; they’ve been to this sort of rodeo before, and the occasion won’t bother either veteran. The latter has been nothing short of a revelation in goal.
Adam Kwarasey came to Portland with a pedigree: at the age of 25, he captained his club, Strømsgodset, to their first league title since 1970. Within a year, he tied the Timbers’ record for shutouts, won an epic playoff PK shootout, and has his new team in the title game.
We expect Columbus to come out firing at home. In their last home game, the Crew overwhelmed the Red Bulls’ defense en route to a goal within 10 seconds. Cool, confident, and decisive, with feet like a midfielder, Kwarasey is exactly who the Timbers want between the sticks for a match like this. With crosses sure to be flying in from all angles, preventing a shot on goal will become as important as stopping one.
In short, we like our chances, and we’ll take our chances.
Water Cooler Number: 2-1
Since a 1-0 home defeat to Kansas City in October, The Timbers have conceded a mere 8 goals (1/gm) while scoring 17 (just over 2/gm). It averages out to a score of 2-1 Portland. In September, these two teams met in Columbus…and Portland won 2-1. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but the numbers don’t lie.
Columbus player to watch: Kei Kamara.
I so desperately wanted to pick Will Trapp for this spot, since he fits the narrative so well, but this is a championship game, and difference makers tend to make the difference. All you really need is one goal to win, and it very well could come down to who scores first.
Defending Kei Kamara isn’t simply out-muscling a big forward, or out-jumping a deadly aerial striker, it’s about containing his service. Portland has struggled for all eternity with set piece defending, and with numerous high-quality delivery options at their disposal. Meram, Finlay, Tchani, Francis, Trapp, and lest we forget Higuain combined for an astounding 43 assists on 58 regular-season team goals. Columbus can feed the ball to Kamara’s dangerous head all afternoon. The big man, by the way, had 8 assists of his own.
Timber to watch: Darlington Nagbe
And it should be. This is Darlington’s full-circle moment. The boy who fled Civil War-torn Liberia to grow up playing soccer in Cleveland, who rose to prominence in nearby Akron and stardom in Portland, the now-U.S. citizen and USMNT midfielder returns to Ohio in the biggest game of his life.
There is no doubt that this will be the hardest-fought 90 minutes of the year, and we fully expect Columbus to focus a great deal of that fight on Nagbe. The Crew don’t have the strongest back line we’ve ever seen, but that holding midfield of Tchani and Trapp won’t give an inch. The Most Fouled Player in MLS will face a heavy dose of punishment, but the cool, quiet Nagbe will absorb it all, then make them pay on the counter.
Darlington isn’t one to rush. With his poise, confidence, and trust in his ability, Nagbe epitomizes the mentality that has allowed Portland to persevere despite a rocky season. This team was built around Darlington Nagbe from the start, and everyone—from the top of the attack to the goalkeeper—from Nat Borchers to Diego Chara to Diego Valeri—who has come to Portland and succeeded in the interim has embodied Nagbe’s characteristics.
Honestly, we wouldn’t go into this game with any other squad.
You didn’t need this preview. You’re ready.
We’re Gonna Ride This Bull All The Way!
ONWARD, ROSE CITY