Saturday, December 5, 2015

MLS Cup Preview: Timbers and Crew battle in Columbus

Tomorrow afternoon, kicking off around 4:00pm eastern on ESPN, Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew do battle with all the MLS marbles at stake. Both teams have taken remarkably different paths on their way to this showdown, but both are deserving of their spot.

Columbus Crew
Regular Season: 15W-11D-8L 53 pts. 2nd in Eastern Conference

Playoffs: Defeated Montreal 4-3 on aggregate after extra time in the second leg of East Semis
Defeated New York Red Bulls 2-1 on aggregate in East Finals

Key Player: Kei Kamara- The league's leading goal scorer (22 in the regular season, 3 in the playoffs) will have to flex his goal scoring muscle if the Crew hope to lift the trophy tomorrow. Their attacks just about always end with him somewhere near the goal, and quite often with him finishing it.
Play style: As mentioned above, Columbus's success will give in Kamara and how well the rest of their attacking quartet can support him.  Kamara won't have to do everything himself, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, and Federico Higuain will more than help him out and could provide some goals as well.

The Crew's primary attacking move involved Finlay swinging in crosses in search of Kamara's head. If that fails, Meram provides a powerful direct threat down the middle and Higuain trends to show up out of nowhere to score.

Tony Tchani and Will Trapp are the team's midfield engine. They don't get involved in the meat of the attack often, but the whole show begins with them in transition. They are suburb passers who can also drop back and support the back four, which will be important against the Timbers and their ability to foray forward with a quick pace and passing flair.

Speaking of their back line, they will have their hands full with the Timbers' skilled attackers. Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro will have to contain Fanendo Adi and the rest of their pacy forwards. Expect goalkeeper Steve Clark to be called upon to make some big saves throughout the match. Meanwhile, Waylon Francis Harrison Afful will double as additional wingers that can create some extra width in the attack. That will allow the likes of Ethan Finlay to jump forward as a secondary target man when he isn't laying his key passes in for Kamara.

The quick fullbacks and strong wing play mean Columbus can be a dangerous counter attacking team that can score quickly. Just ask Justin Meram, who put one in eight seconds into the first leg against New York in the Conference Final. 

Portland Timbers
Regular Season: 15W-11D-8L 53 pts. 3rd in Western Conference

Playoffs: Defeated Sporting Kansas City in epic 11 round penalty shootout after 2-2 draw in knockout rounds.
Defeated Vancouver 2-0 on aggregate in West Semis.
Defeated FC Dallas 5-3 on aggregate in West Finals.

Key Player: Fanendo Adi- Portland got hot when Adi got hot, He started finishing the chances that he so often missed early in the season towards the end of the year when the playoff chase was at it's most critical. Much like Kamara's success will ultimately determine the fate of Columbus, the same can be said for Adi and Portland. If he is able to finish off the chances his talented wingers can give him, then the Timbers will be well on their way to lifting the cup when all is said and done.

Play Style: Portland may not rely on Adi as much as Columbus does on Kamara, but the fact is, if Adi is scoring, the Timbers are winning. He set a club record with 16 goals in the regular season after a pretty slow start.

The goal scoring numbers may drop off after Adi's total, but that isn't due to a lack of talent. Diego Valeri spent the early part of the season recovering from a leg injury that kept him out at the end of last season, but he still put eight goals in. Darlington Nagbe may not be a goal scorer, but he is the engine that makes the Timbers' attack churn. He has frown up significantly this season and now represents Portland's number one assist threat. On the wings Portland has plenty of options. They will likely go with the fast midseason acquisition Lucas Melano on one side with either Dairon Asprilla or Rodney Wallace on the other. Both are pretty interchangeable and can provide the crosses necessary for Adi's finishes.

The Timbers midfield is a little more aggressive than Columbus. Valeri and Nagbe both occupy the central role from time to time and both push forward and attack. Diego Chara served as the lone defensive midfielder in their 4-2-3-1, but he is also known to jump into the attack. His main job is shielding the third best defensive team in MLS. Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers have had a stellar season when in the lineup together. Ridgewell missed the second leg against Dallas with a calf injury, but he expects to play tomorrow. Their primary job will be shutting down Kei Kamara in the middle of the Crew attack.

Much like Columbus, full backs Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana are excellent at jumping into the attack on overlapping runs. They do this while also maintaining responsibility at the back. Tomorrow, they will be charged with holding down the Crew wingers and preventing them from picking out Kamara in the penalty area.

Both sides are quick, counterattacking sides that should provide a wide open game with plenty of goals to be had. The team that plays better on the back line and shuts down the opposing forwards will be the one that comes out ahead at MAPFRE Stadium tomorrow afternoon. I refuse to give an official prediction, my heart is simply too tilted towards Portland. A lot of "experts" are going with Columbus, for what it's worth. I can't pick against the Timbers, however, which is as close to a prediction as you will get from me.

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