Voices: Sam Jones

A to Z: Neutral's guide to MLS Cup 2021 between Portland & NYCFC

Let’s not forget MLS is a growing league. It’s also relatively regional. Which means MLS Cup 2021 on Saturday (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas, TUDN) may be your first or someone you know’s first.

Or maybe you just haven’t watched many Portland Timbers and New York City FC games this year because, well, life got busy.

If you fall into any of these categories or are prepared to watch the game with someone who does in the hopes you’ll create an MLS convert, here’s a handy A-Z guide of the best of MLS Cup 2021 to help you along the way.

A is for Andrade

Thiago Andrade has been used more as a key substitute during his first year in New York. But the Brazilian forward has four goals this season, one of which happens to be this…

B is for Blanco

Sebastian Blanco is in his fifth season with Portland. He returned earlier this season from an ACL tear and didn’t really miss a beat. In 1182 minutes this year he has seven goals and seven assists. He’s the catalyst for a decent chunk of Portland’s second-half success this season and, honestly, he rules. He’s usually the smallest guy on the pitch, but he’s fearless in how he imprints himself on the game by attacking space, looking for a final ball or pulling the trigger on a shot that most wouldn’t even consider.

He left the Conference Semifinals in tears after a hamstring injury, but he made the bench in last week’s Conference Final and I can only imagine it will be extremely hard to keep him off the field for MLS Cup. Every time he takes the field it’s entirely clear he wants this just a little more than everyone else.

C is for Chicken Bucket

When NYCFC began in 2015, it offered a spectacular in-stadium deal: A $20 bucket of chicken with 10 tenders and all the fries a bucket can fit. From the resplendent glory of the chicken bucket came a chant that, just like its inspiration, has no frills or fluff, just chicken and a bucket (the fries are implied). “Chick-en buck-et [clap/clap clap/clap/clap]” the people chant as the chicken buckets are held aloft, an offering to the heavens. As they should be. It’s hard not to credit the chicken bucket with every piece of success NYCFC have ever had. And it’s the clear reason they’re in MLS Cup.

D is for Deila

There was some hesitancy from NYCFC fans to accept Ronny Deila as the manager who would lead NYCFC to their first MLS Cup. But we all should have known from the beginning that this is a man of supreme confidence.

He’s since upped his sense of fashion considerably and has helped implement a tactical philosophy that’s led to NYCFC playing some of the prettiest soccer in the league this season. This is despite him openly and actively worrying about his team having enough good players at the beginning of the year. He’s an inspiration.

E is for Expected Goals

Before anyone gets too mad at me, both of these teams are good and have played well during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and have earned their way to a chance to win the league title. It would be decidedly unfair to call any of this a fluke.

But it is extremely interesting to look at the expected goals numbers for both teams and understand that not every path to MLS Cup is the same. According to American Soccer Analysis, NYCFC finished the year second in expected goal differential while Portland finished the year 20th in the league in expected goal differential. The Timbers were second-to-last in expected goals allowed.

None of this is a referendum on the analytics community as a whole or proof of the validity or lack thereof for expected goals as a concept. It’s just kind of fun and cool this league can allow for that kind of disparity in chances created and allowed, still giving teams a chance to have a truly special season.

F is for Fochive

George Fochive has quietly become an important player for Portland this season since returning to the team after a few years abroad in Denmark and Israel. Fochive has put in 1024 minutes this season for the Timbers midfield, about 400 more than in his first two seasons with Portland back in 2014 and 2015. It’s a good story and it works really well for this A-Z guide because his last name starts with F.

G is for Gudmundur

NYCFC have a player named Gudmundur Thorarinsson. And if that’s not enough of a sell for you, he’s a talented vocalist who can also crush a free kick.

H is for Hype Cart

I might have made this up in a dream during the worst of the pandemic, but I promise you, there was a moment in time where the Timbers won the MLS is Back Tournament and celebrated by driving around the complex on a golf cart lovingly deemed “The Hype Cart.” It was awesome and spectacular and I can’t find any evidence that it ever actually existed. Maybe, just maybe, a Portland win will bring back the return of The Hype Cart.

I is for Ismael Tajouri-Shradi

The third-leading scorer for NYCFC this season despite just 14 starts. The best of the players in this MLS Cup with names starting with I. Apologies to Portland’s Ismaila Jome and Aljaz Ivacic.

J is for Josecarlos Van Rankin

A quality full back who sometimes goes on an adventure or two out of position, but that’s not the important part here. The important part here is he learned English by watching “Peaky Blinders.”

K is for Keaton Parks

Keaton is an excellent player and a crucial piece of NYCFC’s ability to control midfield and build their attack from back to front, which makes it all the more remarkable that NYCFC have made it to MLS Cup without him after he had surgery for a leg blood clot. In fact, they’ve been missing two of their best players in Parks and Anton Tinnerholm for the entirety of the playoffs, further highlighting how stunning this run has been despite critical injuries.

L is for Larrys Mabiala, Goalscorer extraordinaire

Portland’s biggest attacking threat.

M is for Michael Myers

Back in 2019, Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark, who deserves an MLS Cup redemption arc more than anybody, started wearing a Michael Myers mask after games.

“Providence Park is going to be a house of horrors this summer," Clark was quoted as saying at the time. "It’s going to be a tough place to come. That’s kind of what I’m saying. This is a bunch of monsters out here.”

Athletes are inherently strange, goalkeepers are inherently more strange. How can you not be entertained?

N is for No Log Is Safe

Starting back with Timber Jim in 1978 and continuing with Timber Joey in 2008, a man behind the goal at Providence Park has used a chainsaw to cut a log in celebration of a Timbers goal. It’s awesome. Whoever scores the goal gets the piece of log after the game. Don’t question any of it, it’s awesome.

O is for…Oregon?

The game is in Oregon.

P is for Providence Park

My take is that this is the best stadium in MLS. It’s been used in some capacity since 1893 and the setup is outstanding. The Timbers Army section especially has a density and scope to it that makes it feel a lot larger than it actually is. There’s so much history behind it and nothing in MLS comes close honestly.

Q is for Quokka

Has absolutely nothing to do with the game. It’s just a very cute animal. Show this to anyone watching if the game hits a lull.

R is for Rose City

Portland is called the Rose City because they apparently planted a bunch of roses back in 1888 and then didn’t really stop. It’s an objectively good nickname and Timbers fans will use “RCTID” or “Rose City ‘Til I Die” as a rallying cry.

S is for Siblings

Brothers Diego and Yimmi Chara start for the Timbers. Diego is an MLS legend creeping slowly towards the all-time yellow card record while Yimmi is a solid winger and Colombian international. If you want, you can kill the entirety of the game just by watching Diego ruin things for NYCFC and have a blast. No one hates fun more than Diego. That’s what makes him so fun.

T is for Timbers Army

Maybe the most recognizable and most notable supporters’ group in MLS. The level of noise, creativity and willingness to travel have made them the benchmark for fan support in the league. They’ll assuredly have something special planned for MLS Cup. And if they don’t, they’ll just be camera shakingly loud.

U is for the “U” in Au as in the periodic table’s representation of the element of gold as in “Golden Boot” winner Taty Castellanos

“T” and “C” were taken.

Taty Castellanos is this year’s Golden Boot presented by Audi winner and the single most important player on the field. Without him, NYCFC genuinely struggled to keep pace with a Philadelphia Union team missing six starters until the Union faded late in the game. He’s not only a goal scorer, he’s the focal point of their entire attack. The machine doesn’t run without him. And if he’s not on and his finishing is off, then it’s tough for NYCFC to find the back of the net. He’s going to have something to say about the outcome of MLS Cup, one way or another.

V is for Valeri

There are rumors out there this is Diego Valeri's last game for Portland. If it is, he’ll leave after more than 20,000 minutes, 86 goals, 91 assists and three MLS Cup appearances for the club. He’s been limited to a super-sub role this year, but this is the most important Timber ever. Let’s be glad we get one more chance to appreciate him.

W is for Weather

As of publication, the forecast for kickoff is 45 degrees and raining with 19 mph winds. Good luck to all who attend and all who are attempting to read the flight of a soccer ball swirling in the wind while having water fall from the sky.

X is for Xenial

Portland should be welcoming and hospitable to all visitors up until kickoff.

Y is for You Are My Sunshine

In honor of Timber Jim’s daughter, Hannah, Timbers Army sings “You Are My Sunshine” each game. Sometimes people score during the song and it’s extremely cool.

Z is for Zac, Zambrano, Zuparic and Zelalem

If Portland’s Zac McGraw, Renzo Zambrano and Dario Zuparic get on the field with NYCFC’s Gedeon Zelalem, it will be the first time in MLS history (probably) that four Z names have been on the field at once. And isn’t that what we’re all watching for? History?