Voices: Steve Zakuani

2021 MLS Cup tale of the tape: Who has the edge in Portland vs. NYCFC?

Leading up to Saturday's MLS Cup Final at Providence Park, plenty of time will be spent dissecting every aspect of the matchup between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC – both the head-to-head battles we'll see on the field and the tactical chess match between head coaches Giovanni Savarese and Ronny Deila (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas, TUDN).

Nobody knows exactly how it'll play out until kickoff, but here's a side-by-side look at how the clubs stack up against one another, and who might have the edge both on and off the field.


It’s almost impossible to separate Sean Johnson and Steve Clark from a statistical perspective as their regular-season numbers were quite similar across the board. Both played over 2000 minutes, and Clark kept seven clean sheets while Johnson kept nine. Johnson made 86 saves with a 73.5 save percentage, while Clark made 88 with a 74.6 save percentage.

With all of that said, I'm giving the slightest edge to Johnson simply because I’ve seen him pull off the spectacular save more often than I’ve seen Clark do it. I’ve seen both make costly mistakes too, but Johnson has an ability to make acrobatic saves that rescue his team at times when they need it.


This goes to NYCFC. The Timbers have tightened up significantly in the playoffs – two clean sheets in three games and only one goal conceded – but they are still a team that allowed 52 goals during the regular season. By contrast, NYCFC conceded 16 fewer goals which is what allowed them to have a +20 GD to Portland’s +4.

Individually, for my money, Larrys Mabiala is the best lockdown defender across both teams, and he usually always plays well in big games. However, as a cohesive, organized unit led by center backs Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot, New York City have shown themselves to be the superior of the two teams.

Edge: Portland

Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes have reached a new level this postseason. They’ve protected the back four really well and have been the perfect launchpad for most of Portland’s counter-attacking moments. They helped limit both the Rapids and Real Salt Lake to just three shots on target each.

That’s not to say that James Sands and Alfredo Morales haven’t done a great job for their team in comparison, because they have. Without the injured Keaton Parks, they’ve helped NYCFC to two massive away wins against the top two seeds in the East, and they are more than capable of going into Providence Park and lifting MLS Cup. But, even at this stage of his career, Diego Chara is still too dominant, covers too much ground, recovers too many balls and is simply too elite, to cause me to place the New York midfield above one that contains him.

Edge: Even

Playoff Portland are a different beast in attack because they've always seemed to go up a level and get standout performances from almost everyone in their attack. Sebastian Blanco needs no introduction as he’s one of the best big-game players I’ve seen in MLS, but in Dairon Asprilla, Yimmi Chara, Felipe Mora, Santiago Moreno and Marvin Loria, the Timbers have a lot of weapons to cause serious concern for NYCFC.

And I’ve said before, what makes this Timbers attack so dangerous is the different ways in which they can attack you. They are perfectly comfortable playing intricate passes in the final third, but they can also cede possession and focus on being deadly on the counter – on their day, they do both very well and are very hard to defend against.

NYCFC have the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner in Taty Castellanos, and one of the best playmakers in the league, when he’s in form, in Maxi Moralez. Their attacking core also plays really well as a unit, constantly looking for each other, and can score in a variety of ways. Both teams scored 56 goals and are capable of creating a barrage of chances on any given day, and that’s why it’s impossible for me to give the edge to one over the other.

Edge: Portland

The most impactful sub for NYCFC is Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. In him, NYCFC have a player who is starting caliber but will likely come off the bench. And, since he’s a player who knows where the back of the net is, he’s a good impact sub to call upon. However, the goals have really dried up for him and this is why Portland get the advantage here.

Any team that can call on Diego Valeri as a sub, no matter what stage of his career he’s at or what his current form is, has a pretty impressive bench. In a one-off game, a championship game no less, to bring on this special player in the hopes that he can roll the clock back one more time, is a luxury most teams do not have. The Timbers also have good depth elsewhere in Moreno, Loria, George Fochive, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda. They have the slight edge here.

Edge: Portland

Experience-wise, Portland have been here before. They’ve won an MLS Cup (2015) and they’ve also lost one (2018). They’ll know what nerves to expect, what works and doesn’t work preparation-wise and a few other things you can only learn by going through them.

Still, at times it’s better to be the underdog and NYCFC can use this to their advantage as long as they focus on playing the game, and not the occasion. It’s important to give respect to MLS Cup, but it’s even more important to remember that it’s just a 90-minute (or 120-minute) game, and you will be doing something you’ve done countless times before. If NYCFC can strike the balance between a healthy respect for the occasion and an understanding that it’s just another game, their chances for success go up.

However, home-field advantage will be crucial and that’s something Portland can use to their advantage in a big way. Those fans, that city, the passion – it’s the biggest intangible and at times New York will feel like they are playing against an extra player.


I’m not a fan of comparing coaches because I understand just how tough a job it is, and each coach has a different context to work in that can affect how they do their job. But, if I approach this from a perspective of who did the better job this year when all things are taken into consideration – on that basis, I give the edge to Delia.

I think Savarese has been fantastic for the Timbers because he's now taken them to their second MLS Cup, has expertly managed the transition from a Valeri-led team to a Blanco-led one, and has kept his team competitive in the brutal Western Conference.

Delia, however, has succeeded where bigger names like Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent failed. He also had to build his team during a pandemic, but he has now got them playing really good football on both sides of the ball, and they are one game away from making history. It’s actually quite impressive how quickly he’s stamped his identity on the team, and that’s why I give him the most minimal of edges over Savarese for the job he’s done this year.