The location is set. The teams are set. The stage is set.
With the Portland Timbers’ 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Final and New York City FC's 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference Final, we now know the matchup for MLS Cup 2021. Portland and NYCFC will battle at Providence Park on Saturday at 3 pm ET (ABC, UniMás, TUDN).
Timbers’ head coach Giovanni Savarese and Cityzens’ head coach Ronny Deila will both have their say in how MLS Cup unfolds, but for as fun as theoretical tactical conversions are (I am a nerd and I really mean it), the players are the most important part of the game. While there are some major injuries on both sides (Keaton Parks, Anton Tinnerholm, and Nicolas Acevedo for NYCFC and Eryk Williamson and Andy Polo for the Timbers), there will be plenty of talent in the Rose City.
Let’s take a closer look at three potential difference-makers for each MLS Cup entrant and learn more about how they could impact this weekend’s big game.
Few players in recent memory have taken advantage of their opportunity more than Santiago Moreno. The 21-year-old Colombian, who started the Western Conference Final in place of the suspended Dairon Asprilla, helped Portland carve through RSL and scored the result-sealing goal in the second half.
This strike, which had an xG value of just 0.057 according to Second Spectrum, snuck past David Ochoa before hitting the woodwork and bouncing off Ochoa’s back into the back of the net.
Moreno’s right foot caused RSL serious problems – and could cause NYCFC problems on Saturday. With his understanding of space and his ability to cut past defenders, Moreno is in the 78th percentile in successful dribbles per 90 minutes and in the 82nd percentile in average forward distance traveled per successful dribble during the postseason.
The U22 Initiative signing hasn’t featured a ton for Portland since arriving midseason from America de Cali, but if Moreno starts in MLS Cup, expect more quality moments like these:
Sebastian Blanco appears to be back to something approaching match fitness after suffering a hamstring injury against the Colorado Rapids on Thanksgiving Day – and that’s huge for the Timbers. Savarese could have brought him off the bench in the Western Conference Final, but he didn’t need to. Instead, the manager was able to save Blanco’s legs in preparation for MLS Cup.
Even if Blanco can’t play a full 90 minutes on Saturday, he will still be a valuable presence for Portland. Over the last two months of the regular season, Blanco was the primary cog in one of the league’s most dangerous attacks. In the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, Blanco has been a reliable ball-progresser (he’s in the 82nd percentile in the playoffs in average forward distance traveled per touch) and vertical passer (he’s in the 98th percentile in the playoffs in backline-breaking pass frequency).
Blanco – and his on-ball skill – will likely be a big part of Saturday’s game.
Picking a left back as a potential MLS Cup difference-maker is an unorthodox thing to do, but I’m doing it anyway. Claudio Bravo, an offseason signing from Argentina, was among MLS' best fullbacks during the regular season according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. His 0.08 G+ above replacement per 96 minutes was third among fullbacks.
Bravo has been excellent in the postseason, too. With NYCFC’s talented attack, Bravo’s ability to force turnovers while pressuring the ball could be critical for Portland. His 59% pressure efficiency puts him in the 81st percentile in the playoffs.
With the ball, though, is where Bravo will provide real value for Portland. He’s been one of the most dangerous attacking fullbacks in the postseason, bypassing 14 defenders per 90 minutes (96th percentile among fullbacks) and hitting 61 progressive passes per 100 passes (87th percentile among all outfield players). Little slipped passes from Bravo like the one down below could help Portland pick apart NYCFC.
To help negate Portland’s attacking firepower, NYCFC will need Alexander Callens to continue his excellent postseason run. Though Callens’ own goal temporarily put Philadelphia ahead in the Eastern Conference Final, the Peruvian has been a critical piece of the Cityzens' defense. Looking at postseason data, Callens is in the 93rd percentile in pressing efficiency and has won all of his tackles in the playoffs.
In possession, Callens has also been useful. Deila often instructs one of his central defensive midfielders to rotate into the backline, creating a temporary back three. With cover from his center-back partner (Maxime Chanot) and a midfield teammate, Callens can then drive forward and break lines on the dribble.
Among center backs in the playoffs, Callens is in the 97th percentile in total defenders bypassed and the 85th percentile for defenders bypassed per 90 minutes. He’s also a regular progressive passer, ranking in the 90th percentile among outfield players in progressive passing frequency.
Against a Portland defense that has struggled for much of this season, Callens’ on-field presence could be key.
Though NYCFC won the Eastern Conference Final without him, you can bet Deila will be glad to have the best striker in MLS back for MLS Cup. Without Valentin Castellanos on Sunday, New York City played fewer passes into the box and Zone 14 than they had in any of their prior playoff games this season.
New York City missed Castellanos in buildup, and they also missed the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner's skill in the box. Castellanos’ xG hasn’t been particularly strong in the postseason, but between his xG track record (he led the league in open-play xG in the regular season) and a goal like the one he scored to give NYCFC an extra-time lead over the New England Revolution in the Conference Semifinals, it’s clear to see the damage that Castellanos can cause in the penalty area.
With his pressing, his combination play and his ability to find and exploit space in the box, Castellanos is a vital piece of New York City’s squad.
Santiago Rodriguez is a bad, bad man. The 21-year-old Uruguayan burst onto MLS' scene after joining on loan from Montevideo City Torque in June. Rodriguez played just under 1,000 minutes in the regular season and has played a hefty chunk of postseason minutes (289). During those 289 minutes, Rodriguez has been one of the league’s best attacking midfielders.
He’s seventh in successful dribbles among players in the postseason and is more than comfortable advancing the ball with a defender on his hip:
In terms of his passing ability, Rodriguez is in the 98th percentile among midfielders in passes leading to a shot and the 88th percentile in passes leading to a shot per 90 minutes. With quick feet and a strong right foot, Rodriguez can be a problem for opposing defenses. Just ask the Revolution…
With Moreno, Blanco and Bravo for Portland and Callens, Castellanos, and Rodriguez for NYCFC – plus a number of players who weren’t mentioned – there's no shortage of talent that could impact MLS Cup on Saturday.