This is it. One more game to crown a champion, and we’re 24 hours away from either the Portland Timbers or New York City FC lifting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. Perhaps less, depending on when you’re reading this. MLS Cup 2021.
Here are 10 big questions, in no particular order, that could define Saturday at Providence Park…
From goalkeepers to coaching, who has the edge in MLS Cup?
Behold, the forecast of destiny. Rain in the Pacific Northwest in mid-December! 100% precipitation leaves no wiggle room. These are “Remember when…” final conditions.
Thankfully, the 47 mph wind gusts once predicted at kickoff – it sounds absurd, but I swear I saw that when I checked the forecast a few days ago – are down to a blustery but manageable 14 mph. It may not be you or I’s version of heaven, but the Timbers Army has a song for days like this…
“Let it rain, let it pour, let the Portland Timbers score! Nah nah nah nahhhhhh nah nah nahhhhhhh nah nah”
When I saw tears streaming down Sebastian Blanco’s face after injuring his hamstring against the Colorado Rapids on Thanksgiving Day, I figured the next time we’d see him playing soccer was preseason 2022. Torn hammy, shut it down.
Only Blanco didn’t shut it down. He went from Questionable to Probable on the injury report ahead of the Conference Final against Real Salt Lake, and manager Giovanni Savarese even teased his potential availability.
"Seba is a very competitive player and person," Savarese said. "And he's doing whatever he can to get to the game and play at least some minutes. Some days ago we thought that was impossible, today we have a little bit of hope and maybe he can make it.”
A week ago, it went from “impossible” to “a little bit of hope” and, reading safely between the lines, a potential substitute appearance. To the Timbers’ relief, Felipe Mora scored five minutes into a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake and Blanco wasn’t called on to play a single minute, meaning no load on the hamstring and another week to rehab and progress.
Could Blanco talk his way into starting MLS Cup at home? He’ll surely try. There are five substitutes should Savarese need one early, and this is Blanco’s team now.
He is the alpha, he wasn’t around for 2015's win at Columbus and there’s also the small matter of ongoing contract negotiations for next year. Maybe Savarese decides to trust his best player and let the chips fall as they may. Maybe Blanco truly is ready to play a big part. Maybe he starts.
Maybe it’s clear to everybody involved that the Argentine is only capable of a short burst off the bench. Maybe that’s the best path forward either way given Savarese’s wealth of attacking options. Either way, there are some potential Willis Reed-lite vibes with Blanco on Saturday.
MLS moved away from neutral sites for the 2012 MLS Cup final, giving us nine years of data. Fortunately – for us, and not the Dynamo – the Galaxy also happened to host and win in 2011 at a “neutral site” in Carson to bring the sample size up to an even 10.
Bad news for NYCFC! The hosts have won eight of the last 10 MLS Cups and each of the last four. Here’s the rundown, road winners bolded.
- 2011: LAG 1, HOU 0
- 2012: LAG 3, HOU 1
- 2013: SKC 1 (PK win), RSL 1
- 2014: LAG 2, NE 1
- 2015: CLB 1, POR 2
- 2016: TOR 0, SEA 0 (PK win)
- 2017: TOR 2, SEA 0
- 2018: ATL 2, POR 0
- 2019: SEA 3, TOR 1
- 2020: CLB 3, SEA 0
If you go further back to MLS 1.0 days, D.C. United won their second MLS Cup at RFK Stadium in 1997, and the New England Revolution suffered the first of their five MLS Cup final defeats at Gillette Stadium in 2002.
To further paint the picture, including playoff results…
- Portland at home in 2021: 13-4-2
- NYCFC on the road in 2021: 5-8-6
Many times more than the 25,218 who can officially jam into Providence Park, I can tell you that.
Yeah, this is a pantheon ticket in the Rose City, and everybody seems to be doing everything they can to make sure they make it through the turnstiles.
Meanwhile, I’ve got NYCFC supporters in my mentions telling me that they’re expecting close to 2,000 traveling supporters to attend the match. That sounds hopeful, but I hope it’s true. Every final needs a heaping helping of away fans.
Valentin Castellanos is back! And, I presume, hungrier than ever after watching his teammates gut out a win in Chester without him.
I got this stat from YES Network play-by-play man and Sirius XM soccer big dog Joe Tolleson, who I am thinking of this week following the death of his father. Best to you and yours, Joe. We were talking MVP, and Joe dropped that NYCFC are 12-2-3 when Castellanos scores and 4-9-7 when he doesn’t. Taty scores = NYCFC mostly wins. Taty doesn’t score = NYCFC mostly doesn’t. That tracks.
Taty is a volume finisher. He scored more than anyone else in MLS this year (19g/8a, Golden Boot presented by Audi). He also missed the most big chances (22, per Opta). As we saw against the Revs in the Conference Semifinal, he can giveth (go-ahead goal) and taketh away (missed big chance prior, red card). Which will it be on Saturday? The answer likely determines the result for the visitors.
Just reading between the lines, it feels like this is it, right?
Diego Valeri has just one start since the beginning of August with no goals or assists. He’s dropped down the pecking order when it’s time for Savarese to change the game off the bench. The 35-year-old Timbers legend signed a multi-year TAM extension ahead of the 2020 season. This is the end of two (read: multi) years of that contract.
Valeri has said he isn’t ready to walk away from his playing career. He doesn’t seem to be an integral part of the club’s long- or short-term plans going forward. I’m just doing basic math here, and the math tells me this MLS Cup final could be Valeri’s final match as a Timber. If so, I hope there’s room for a fitting final moment for the club’s original MLS talisman, the face of so much of their previous MLS success.
From an attacking perspective, here’s who each coach will probably have to call upon…
- Giovanni Saverese/Timbers: Blanco, Valeri, Santiago Moreno, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Marvin Loria
- Ronny Deila/NYCFC: Heber, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Talles Magno, Thiago Andrade, Gudmundur Thorarinsson
Steve Zakuani gave the edge to the Timbers in his Tale of the Tape column. I’m calling this one a draw. There’s a lot of quality from both sides just waiting to get waved up to the fourth official.
I honestly have no clue, but I did a bunch of research that I’ll share with you. Form your own conclusions. I think, if I was forced to make a pick, I’d give the Timbers the edge at home.
Career regular season and playoff penalty kick success rate (no shootouts)
- vs. Sean Johnson (NYC): 37 made of 53 taken (70%) opponent success rate
- vs. Steve Clark (POR): 22 made of 28 taken (79%) opponent success rate
Recent shootout experience
Won vs. New England Revolution in 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs (5-3)
- Johnson saved Adam Buksa
- Five conversions, Maxi Moralez and Alexander Callens made clutch PKs to seal win
Lost to Pumas UNAM in Leagues Cup (3-2)
- Johnson made two saves
- Moralez, Callens and Tajouri-Shradi missed
Lost to Orlando City in 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs (6-5)
- Johnson saved Nani to prevent Orlando win, six shots converted
- Moralez and Gudi Thorarinsson missed
Won vs. FC Cincinnati in MLS is Back (4-2)
- Clark made one save, then Kendall Waston hit one into orbit
- Four conversions, no misses (Valeri, Mora, Blanco, Niezgoda)
Remember the last time the Timbers won MLS Cup…
I’ve got a classic Simon Borg Instant Replay cued up to the seventh-minute game-winner from Rodney Wallace that benefited from what I would be very confident labeling a clear and obvious missed out of bounds call.
That ball is out of bounds, but it didn’t get caught and that goal made all the difference. Portland got lucky there was no eye in the sky. On Saturday, every big play is going to be checked by a small army of video assistant referees. What will they see? The answer could change the match.
I’m taking the Timbers. Home-field advantage is very real, and Gio has a knack for getting the best out of his team in knockout competitions. They’ve been here before and get to do it in the comfort of home, while NYCFC are in an entirely new situation. Either way, this one has the potential to be a classic. I hope we get a match to remember in more ways than one.