Diego Rubio Khiry Shelton - Sporting Kansas City - Celebrates goal

And then there were four. It's time to get hyped for the Conference Championships, with the first legs kicking off Sunday, Nov. 25. This week, we continue to dive deep into New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United and Sporting KC vs. Portland Timbers to see where each side can find an edge in their matchup. With the help of columnists Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw, we're parsing all facets of both Conference Championship clashes, one day at a time. Last week, we discussed the goalkeepersdefenders, and midfielders. Today, we continue with the forwards.




Unlike the two teams in the Eastern Conference Final, neither Sporting Kansas City nor the Portland Timbers have leaned on a single center forward, week-in, week-out this season. Additionally, that center forward isn't tasked with either team's chief goalscoring responsibilities.


Both get their goals from elsewhere. In Portland, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco led the team in scoring; For SKC, wingers Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell each contributed double-digit goals. 


Portland cycled through three strikers in 2018. At the beginning of the season Fanendo Adi led the lines, as he had done for the last four seasons; Then Samuel Armenteros enjoyed an extended run in the team and Adi was sold to FC Cincinnati. When Armenteros hit a dry spell, 21-year-old Jeremy Ebobisse was given his chance in September. A steady, hard-working presence in the middle of the park, the former US youth international has taken his opportunity well. Warshaw wrote about the four small ways Ebobisse has made a difference for the Timbers.


As for SKC, Diego Rubio and Khiry Shelton have mainly traded the role of starting striker this season while Krisztian Nemeth has gotten some time in the starting XI through the middle of the pitch since returning to the club in August. But Nemeth only played one minute in the team's final four games of the season and hasn't made an appearance yet this postseason, though he may get a chance off the bench in the first leg with Rubio suspended.


Rubio is the most dangerous goalscorer of the trio, netting eight goals in 781 minutes during the regular season. Shelton, though, links play extremely well, accentuating the ability of Salloi and Russell. 


Which group of forwards do our experts prefer?


DOYLE VERDICT:

Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers: Who has the better forwards? - SKC

Sporting KC

Peter Vermes has done a nice job of collecting talent and depth all over the roster, but nowhere is it more obvious than at center forward. He can hit you with the Mack Truck that is Khiry Shelton, or blow past you with the Ferrari that is Diego Rubio. Allowing them to share the load has made SKC dynamic and very difficult to gameplan against.


The Timbers had to go through a few iterations and a prolonged center forward dry spell before finally realizing that it was time to take Jeremy Ebobisse out of mothballs. The second-year forward doesn’t jump off the screen at you, but he’s proved to be a good enough finisher and an outstanding hold-up playmaker.


WARSHAW VERDICT:

Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers: Who has the better forwards? - SKC

Sporting KC

The talent level of the teams feels pretty even, but I love the way Peter Vermes has built his attack. The toughest tactical nuance to build in soccer is the combination of structure and creativity. You can't just tell attackers to "express themselves" and expect magic to happen; but you also can't give them rigid instructions at all time, you need to leave room for players to do the unexpected. Vermes has been able to find that balance this year.


Every player in the attack - likely to be Salloi and Russell outside of Shelton or Rubio - knows his role and works off of each other. But they also understand the moments when they can break rank. We've seen equal measures of fluid combinations as individual brilliance this year.


Blanco is the attacker most likely to dominate a game, but I prefer SKC as a unit.