There are stars in these two teams, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC. There are the dominant, rugged No. 9s, the brilliant Argentine No. 10s, and the African-born American No. 8s. There are the veteran defenders and the livewire fullbacks, and the wingers able to go from 0-to-60 at Formula 1 speeds.
There are the 'keepers who make things interesting, and there are the d-mids who make things smart.
There are also the goalposts. The incredible, reliable, scene-stealing goalposts.
Let's remember how the Timbers got past the Knockout Round:
And let's revisit the frantic, desperate dying moments of the Eastern Conference Championship, with Columbus holding onto a 2-1 series lead:
Red Bulls threw everything forward, and it made for one frantic last minute of play. WATCH: https://t.co/yY42L5Udhr— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 30, 2015
Portland beat FC Dallas 5-3 on aggregate after a 2-2 tie on Sunday, and then Columbus survived that insanity above to keep it to a 1-0 loss and 2-1 aggregate win.
They've been the two best teams in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. They are entirely deserving not because they've had luck, but because they've by and large made their own.
Here's why they're here:
Before this series, Gregg Berhalter decided that if the Red Bulls were going to beat his team, they'd have to do it in the air. To that end, Crew SC coaxed this year's Supporters' Shield winners into 34 crosses in the first leg, and 36 more in the second. And now MLS Cup will be in Ohio, so clearly his plan had merit.
But I think that we saw, once Anatole Abang came on late in leg two, just how risky that proposition was. In his 18 minutes on the field, Abang won five of the nine balls he contested in the air, including the game's only goal:
To put that into perspective, Bradley Wright-Phillips won seven of the 14 aerials he contested in 180 minutes. That kind of math tells a story.
And really, I think the story was that New York were just a little bit too inflexible for a little bit too long. The decision by Columbus to sit deep and boot the ball out of their own end rather than play their typical form of back-to-front possession basically dared RBNY to change their own style. New York needed to move from the compact, opportunistic and relentless midfield and high pressure that had defined them into a more robust and physical team playing the ball directly into the box.
Once they accepted that, they started creating consistent pressure. It was ugly and scrappy and inelegant, but before they accepted that, they created nothing much at all.
Much of the credit obviously goes to Berhalter for his game-planning, and to the central midfield triumverate of Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp and Federico Higuain for how difficult they made it on Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Felipe. It's one thing to say "We're not going to let New York build through the middle" and it's another thing to go out and actually do it. Few teams have had much luck with that this season.
Even more credit, though, has to go to fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, as they almost entirely neutralized New York wingers Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam over the two legs. Teams that have collapsed into the middle against RBNY have generally been exposed out wide, but Afful and Francis dominated the flanks for Crew SC.
This passing map from the RBNY duo is through the first 72 minutes (Grella was subbed off 10 minutes earlier) and it shows that New York got no chance creation or penetration from the duo before Abang got into the game:
Worse still for the Red Bulls was that the threat of Ethan Finlay bursting into space behind the back line kept Kemar Lawrence from overlapping and adding some sort of possession on that left-hand side. The disconnect between the defense and midfield that defined the first leg was a feature of the second leg as well.
The beauty of soccer is that every tactical choice is a "pick your poison" proposition. Berhalter had the nerve to drop his team's line deep and do what they'd struggled at for so long -- defend in their own 18 -- in order to take away New York's defense-to-offense transition, which is their best weapon.
It worked. Columbus chose their poison, drank it, and get the chance to play for the franchise's second-ever MLS Cup next weekend.
Here Comes Your Man
I'll remember the goalposts and the great management from Berhalter and a few other things, but I'll also remember that this was the season in which FC Dallas had enough chances to get it done, but didn't have the right guy to finish them. I said before the playoffs that I couldn't pick them as MLS Cup favorites because I simply don't think you can win multiple series against the likes of Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey and Fanendo Adi if the guy you're trotting out there is David Texeira.
Texeira's not a bad player, and his goal in the first leg was well taken. But he had three really good chances in this series, and converted just one of them. More frustrating for Dallas fans had to be the lack of link play he offered, and the fact that he wasn't an aerial threat at any point against a team that still struggles to defend set pieces.
Dallas were better -- much better -- once Texeira was subbed off for Blas Perez.
Even with that "might have been" corollary, though, Portland absolutely deserved their series victory. They were opportunistic on their own set pieces, got a golazo from Dairon Asprilla in leg one, and got a fairly typical Adi goal in leg two. Over the 180 minutes, they were the better team, and the expected goals story lines up with the eye test:
Two-legged xG map for Dallas-Portland. Those massive chances in the center of the FCD six-yard box are the story. pic.twitter.com/krvP39rMsC— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) November 30, 2015
They also got huge plays on both ends of the field. Nat Borchers' block of a Perez shot in second-half stoppage is almost certainly going to be remembered as the defensive intervention of the season, while Lucas Melano's Jedi mind control-enabled stroll through the Dallas defense for the clincher was a clinic on the value of efficient touches on the dribble:
We prize speed and step-overs too much. Melano did the above with hesitation, balance and close control. It was pretty.
The big worry for Portland this week will be their own right side. That's where Dallas went to generate shots time and time again, and it was an untracked overlap from left back Ryan Hollingshead that produced FCD's first goal (Hollingshead had missed a similar chance in the first leg). Rest assured that Francis and Justin Meram have both taken note.
They'll get the rest of the week to figure out how they want to attack any perceived weaknesses, and the Timbers will get the same.
A few more things to ponder...
5. Today's was a quiet game offensively for Darlington Nagbe, but he was monstrous on the defensive side -- including a couple times when he tracked down Mauro Diaz and shouldered him off the ball. Nagbe really is a No. 8.
4. Speaking of Diaz, either of his two assists could have been Pass of the Week. I'm going to give it to McCarty instead for this on-the-move, left-footed, defense-splitting pass:
That's a special bit of play from Felipe to set the sequence up, and the typical stout 1-v-1 defense from Francis to snuff the movement out.
3. Jorge Villafana's brain has always been his best asset as a soccer player, and it enabled him to make up for the athletic deficit he faced against both Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios in this series. Other players on Portland may have been better than Villafana, but none was more consistent.
2. The Michael Parkhurst/Gaston Sauro central defensive pair works on a lot of levels. Parkhurst's ability to read plays early and either hold or come off his line to shut things down balances Sauro's more linear, physical presence. It reminds me of the Matt Besler/Aurelien Collin pairing that worked so well for Sporting KC for a few years.
1. Face of the Week goes to Diego Valeri, who -- despite his lack of foot speed -- is the league's most dangerous player on the break. His patience to wait until defenses twist themselves in knots or open up gaps is uncanny and uncontainable. Only sloppy touches from his fellow attackers robbed him of another three assists:
Congrats to him and the Timbers. Congrats as well to Columbus Crew SC.
The 20th MLS Cup will be next Sunday. Seven days and counting...