Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Tactical preview of the 26th MLS Cup as Portland Timbers host NYCFC

The Portland Timbers, for the first time in club history, are hosting MLS Cup this coming Saturday (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas, TUDN). They’ll face a New York City FC team that’s never played in a Cup final of any sort – MLS Cup, US Open Cup, MLS is Back Tournament, whatever.

And yet nothing about this matchup feels particularly surprising. The Timbers spent a good chunk of the year on the struggle bus but, as talented veteran teams often do, they kicked into high gear down the stretch, got a decent seed (West No. 4) and then did their survive-and-advance thing all the way here. NYCFC, meanwhile, are the league’s winningest regular-season team since 2016 and were one of the league’s best teams in 2021 by virtually all the advanced metrics. Then the East’s No. 4 seed finally eliminated the catastrophic postseason errors that had cost them so dearly over the past half-decade.

Both teams are here on merit. Let’s take a look at how it’s gonna play out:

What Portland will do

I’m kinda certain of exactly what they’ll do and kinda confused as to exactly how they’ll do it. Let me explain.

The Timbers have traditionally been much more at home on the counterattack over basically the entirety of their time in MLS, and so I thought – everyone thought, I’d guess – that a counter-attacking Timbers side is what we’d see in the Western Conference Final against a Real Salt Lake team that was not afraid of getting on the ball.

But nope! Portland were buzzing from opening kick, playing on the front foot and using their frankly incredible team speed to press the visitors, immediately pinning RSL back and turning it into a 1-0 lead inside of five minutes.

They backed off after that, but still were much more on the front foot than the back foot and controlled more possession basically throughout the game. Then when the chance to play vertically and attack a spread out RSL team presented itself…

Attack it they did.

This all lines up with what the underlying numbers say. As per Second Spectrum Portland are the second-most direct team in the league, behind only the model-breaking Red Bulls, when logging possessions that end with a shot. Their conversion rate in transition is 15.3%, which is third-best in MLS.

So yes, the Timbers are obviously going to try to gash a possession-happy NYCFC side in transition, and they’ve become very good at doing so while not settling for crosses (and the crosses they do hit tend to be super-dangerous back-post crosses for Dairon Asprilla, who’s back for this one). They get multiple runners cooking off the ball any time there’s a chance to do so, and it’s a game plan that works for them.

But so did the pressing, even though they barely do any of that, ever. It really seemed to play to some of their team strengths.

Then there’s another thing to consider: Don’t you want to set the tone at home in a Cup final? There’s a danger in letting anyone – but especially a team as good with the ball as NYCFC – get too comfortable.

I don’t know, maybe the hard pressing and heavy possession we saw out of the Timbers vs. RSL was a one-off. I’d kind of understand it if it was. But also, I’d definitely understand if it wasn’t.

What NYCFC will do

There are no questions about NYCFC’s game plan: They will press Portland, try to win the ball back as quickly and as high upfield as possible, and send multiple runners at multiple gaps all over the attacking third.

This is what head coach Ronny Deila was talking about during his halftime interview of the Eastern Conference Final win over Philadelphia last weekend. He lamented his team’s penchant for being pulled toward the ball instead of attacking space, and once he made his trio of subs, that was no longer a problem and so the Union spent the final 30 minutes of the game defending for their lives.

Bear in mind, that was without Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos. No one in the league has been better at attacking space – his 824 attacking runs were most in the league, as per Second Spectrum – as the Revs learned to their detriment in the East Semifinals:

Multiple runners make it much harder for any defense. That, more than anything else, is NYCFC’s attacking ethos.

That should not overshadow how great a pressing team they were this year, though, as they finished in the top five in virtually every pressing metric (including “goals generated via the high press,” for those of you who don’t care about the underlying numbers). Again, Castellanos was the key – his 681 presses high up the pitch led the league by a mile (Maxi Urruti was second with 516).

Given how good NYCFC have been at controlling proceedings when they play the way Deila wants them to, I just don’t see why they’d change. I assume they’ll try to push Portland back into a shell, dominate central midfield and make sure that they’re always throwing multiple runners into the 18.

X-Factor No. 1: What’s Sebastian Blanco’s status after the hamstring injury? If he actually starts – I really don’t think he will, but you never know! – can he press at all? Will his presence in the XI, or even on the field, mean that Portland are automatically reduced to a sit-and-counter team?

X-Factor No. 2: It’s not like NYCFC have been bad on restarts (just ask Atlanta), but the Timbers are on another level and have been since mid-August.

Also bear in mind that this is largely the same group that won the MLS is Back Tournament last summer and, in so doing, scored their final four goals of the event (two each in the semifinals and final) off set pieces. They know how to win that way.

X-Factor No. 3: Rain? You expect that in Portland this time of year. Wind gusts potentially up to 45 MPH? Yikes.

The verdict

NYCFC, on paper, are an awful matchup for the Timbers. Hell, they’re an awful matchup for anyone – as I wrote at the start of the playoffs, when NYCFC have played well this year I don’t think anyone in MLS has matched them. They can be overwhelming.

But the Timbers have been here before (twice, to be precise), and have guys who can go out there and just win them the damn game. And home-field advantage matters a ton: hosts are 9-2 in MLS Cup since 2011.

I can’t pick against the Timbers’ experience and that precedent. 2-1 Logs.