Monday, December 7, 2015

It Happened in America: Portland defeats Columbus to hoist their first MLS Cup

Columbus Crew 1-2 Portland Timbers
It's hard to take notes while watching an emotional championship game as a fan from the stands.  It's even harder to write anything after celebrating a championship with the Timbers Army and then driving three and a half hours home. So, after an analytical viewing of last night's MLS Cup this morning, here is the recap of last night's Timbers victory over the Columbus Crew.

It was a fast, chaotic start that saw Diego Valeri score 27 seconds into that match thanks to an egregious goalkeeping error by Steve Clark. He mishandled a back pass from his defenders, allowing Valeri to bolt forward and knock the ball over the line with a sliding challenge. The madness didn't stop there. In the seventh minute, the Timbers capitalized off an error by the assistant referee. Diego Chara played a ball out for Alvas Powell that went out of play, but the AR didn't raise his flag. Everyone on the pitch, except Darlington Nagbe, who stole the ball from an oblivious Tony Tchani, thought it was a throw in to the Crew. Portland kept playing on however, and second later, a cross from Lucas Melano found the diving head of Rodney Wallace to make the score 2-0 before anyone could really settle in.

Portland was now free to keep numbers back in order to keep their opponents off the scoreboard. They did well until a massive goalkeeping error from Adam Kwarasey allowed Columbus back into the match. A floater made its way towards the Portland goal and Kwarasey could have punched away or even caught the ball safely. He did neither and it fell to the ground where a scramble of feet led to Kei Kamara breaking free and blasting the ball into the back of the net. The Crew were right back in the thick of things despite their sleepy start.

The game slowed down heavily after the Columbus goal. Portland settled in as the defenders. They struggled to control the ball in the rare case they got it, anyway. Columbus, even with the majority of the ball, was far from able to crack the Timbers' defense. And trip to the penalty area resulted in a steal by one of Portland's back four. The Columbus wide midfielders Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay, who were expected the be the fulcrum of their attacking moves all day long, were completely ineffectual along the flanks. Rodney Wallace, Alvas Powell, and Jorge Villafana shut them down and prevented them from finding any space to pick out Kei Kamara for any sort of chance.

Portland was able to defend their way to a 2-1 halftime lead thanks to the pair of gifts they received in the opening minutes and, with the exception of the Kamara goal, the ironclad defending in their penalty area.

The second half was a similar story to the first, only without the goals and with Portland getting a few chances to extend their lead. Although the early part of the half made it look like the Timbers would simply sit back in their own half, they soon realized that going for another goal might be the better option. Lucas Melano had a great chance that ended in a lazy shot that was blocked in the 53rd minute. He was subbed off for Dairon Asprilla a few minutes later. Right at the hour mark, Portland had a corner nearly go in several times. It was cleared off the line at least twice by some razzled Columbus defenders, including a potential handball against Michael Parkhurst that probably should have resulted in a penalty to the Timbers.

Greg Berhalter began to realize that their initial set up was not going to be enough to tie the score. Ethan Finlay, who was pretty ineffective anyway, was subbed off in the 63rd minute for Cedric Mabwati.  The Crew brought on midseason acquisition Jack McInnerney in the 72nd minute for Tony Tchani to add a second strike option up front. Justin Meram, who was equally bad along his wing, was taken off in the 79th for Mohammed Said. Columbus was trying anything they could in order to grab themselves a tying goal, but nothing was working. The Timbers defense remained stout in the face of what little danger they had thrown at them. The best chance the Crew had was in the 77th minute when a little flick from Gonzalo Higuain just missed the head of McInnerney in the six yard box.

The Timbers were much better in possession in the entire second half and truly looked the more threatening side. In the 71st minute Fanendo Adi came inches away from making it 3-1 when he got his head to a Villafana cross. His floating effort banked off the post and back off Steve Clark and out for a corner. The chances were certainly coming for Portland far more than they were for Columbus. Darlington Nagbe floated a wide open shot too high in the 74th.  Their best chance came in the 81st minute when Valeri picked out Nat Borchers on a cross at the far post. Steve Clark robbed the bearded defender blind of what could have been an easy put away goal. Clark denied Adi a couple minutes later on a counter attack. For all the luck the Timbers received in the first seven minutes to score their two goals, they certainly got paid back in bad luck late in the second half.

For all the attacking flair the Crew could boast heading into this match, they were extremely ineffectual up front. Their only shot on target was the Kamara goal. They were outshot by Portland as a whole despite having a 61%-39% advantage in possession. Credit to Diego Chara, Nat Borchers, and Liam Ridgewell for coming in with a defensive plan to bottle up the penalty area and not allow Kei Kamara and his attack force the space to cause any damage. Stoppage time hit and Portland went into pure keep away mode. As soon as the fourth official held up the four minutes to be added on, it was the Timbers mission to keep the Crew off the ball and not allow them to even have the chance to create a goal to force extra time.

As much as the referees had to answer regarding Portland's second goal, Columbus had very little case to say they could have won this game. Their attack was lifeless throughout the duration and they were very fortunate not to have allowed a third goal in the second half. Portland outplayed the Crew, particularly as the second half wore on.

The Timbers finished off a nine game unbeaten streak with their first MLS Cup in team history. It caps off a most unlikely result for a crazy season. They always had the ability to defend their way to draws, but the goal scoring form was simply not there until late in the summer. They found that form at just the right time and were rewarded with the ultimate prize in American soccer.

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