Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers are set to face off in Sunday's MLS Cup (4 pm ET, ESPN | UniMás | TSN1,4 | RDS2), and the MLSsoccer.com editorial staff broke down just how these two teams match up, showing you who will have the edge.
EDGE: Portland Timbers
Steve Clark hasn't been asked to make the spectacular saves for Columbus Crew SC in their run to the MLS Cup, but the 29-year-old has made the most saves of any 'keeper in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. Clark is asked to jumpstart Columbus' attack with the ball at his feet and he has been successful at that ever since joining the club prior to the 2014 season. The backline in front of him has solidified since the addition of Gaston Sauro, and that has paid dividends for Clark, who has conceded just six goals in his last seven games. He did have a bit of a gaffe in the Eastern Conference Championship, failing to clear the ball after coming off his line, allowing Anatole Abang to bring the Red Bulls back in to the game at the death.
Adam Kwarasey has been just as solid throughout the entire season for the Timbers. After tying for the league lead in clean sheets with 13 during the regular season, he made a couple saves in Portland's Knockout Round win over Sporting Kansas City. Since then the Timbers have done a good job at keeping opponents' opportunities to a minimum, especially against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference Semifinals. This has limited Kwarasey's chances to showcase his shot-stopping ability in the playoffs, but there's little doubt he will be able to step up whenever called upon. His pedigree and performances throughout the year can not be ignored.
– BEN BAER
EDGE: Portland Timbers
Yes, Crew SC allowed 53 goals during the regular season, second-worst among all Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs participants. No, that’s not entirely indicative of the defensive team they are at the moment. Part of that shift is down to tactics: During the regular season, Gregg Berhalter didn’t have a problem outscoring teams, and you couldn’t blame him, what with Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain and Justin Meram tearing up opposing Ds. With summer signings Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro fully integrated and playoff pragmatism reining in the attacking offense, Columbus seems to have turned a corner. Through 31 games, they’d allowed 1.64 goals per game; with Sauro in the lineup from October 3 onward (with Tyson Wahl covering for suspensions), they’ve allowed less than a goal a game. Crew SC have an elite leader and organizer in Michael Parkhurst, Afful and Waylon Francis may be the best fullback tandem in MLS and Sauro is the physical and aerial presence they’ll need against Fanendo Adi.
If regular-season performance was the only variable considered, the Timbers would be a shoo-in here. Portland's 39 goals allowed was good for second-best in MLS. But Columbus’ backline isn’t so leaky these days, thanks to a few key additions and tactical shifts, and the Timbers now possess an ever-so-slight advantage that could flip flop when the lineups come out on Sunday. If Liam Ridgewell’s balky calf is good to go, Portland will have a pair of generals in the middle in the Englishman and Nat “My beard is better (and redder) than yours” Borchers plus two of the best outside backs in MLS — the well-rounded Jorge Villafana and attack-minded Alvas Powell – patrolling the flanks. If Ridgewell’s calf keeps him out and Norberto Paparatto deputizes, the chemistry and communication between Borchers and and the Argentine will be put to the test against Kei Kamara and Co. just like it was in the Western Conference Championship.
EDGE: Columbus Crew SC
Columbus Crew SC’s midfield may have flown under the radar heading into the Conference Championship against a much-hyped New York Red Bulls unit, but that won’t be the case for MLS Cup. Crew SC’s defensive midfield duo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani thoroughly bossed the Red Bulls for the majority of the two legs while their incisive wingers Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram and Cedrick Mabwati (the latter off the bench) did much of the damage in the first leg.
For the Timbers, Diego Chara is slighter-of-frame than Tony Tchani, but no less tenacious, as he showed with an outstanding two legs against FC Dallas. Look for Chara to keep Columbus playmaker Federico Higuain in check. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe have been solid so far in the playoffs, Nagbe especially so in the first leg of the Conference Championship, but they may need to find another level if they are to move the ball effectively an accurately against a Crew SC team that smothered the Red Bulls. Out wide, Portland’s wingers provide a similar incisive edge as Crew SC’s – just look at the goals Dairon Asprilla and Lucas Melano supplied in each leg against Dallas.
Kei Kamara was an MVP candidate this year. He scored 22 goals, he picked up eight assists, and he was an absolute ideal fit for the cross-heavy Columbus Crew SC attack. The stats present an idea of how valuable and multi-talented he was, but even that doesn't give the whole picture. To get a taste, you have to look at the very first play of Columbus's Eastern Conference Championship win over the New York Red Bulls – and very last. Six seconds in, it was Kamara rising up to win the header that led to Justin Meram's series-defining goal. No assist was awarded on that play, but Kamara's the only forward in the league who wins that ball. And seconds from the series' end, it was Kamara clearing a ball off the line after Bradley Wright-Phillips' shot had caromed off the goalpost. Those are game-winning plays from the best forward in the league this year.
It's hard to believe there was a time when Portland Timbers fans (and maaaaaybe the front office?) wanted to replace Fanendo Adi, but it really wasn't that long ago. The giant Nigerian is arguably the most talented No. 9 in the league (non-Drogba category), and over the last two months he's finally started to play like it on a week-to-week basis. He served notice in that late-season win at LA, when he scored the first goal then bossed Omar Gonzalez physically to set up the game-winner, and he's kept up that form throughout the playoffs. He is an immovable object on the ball, forcing defenders to collapse to him, then exploiting the space they leave with smart and no-frills passing to the flanks. Lots of good has come out of the last two months for the Timbers, and Adi's ascent into the ranks of the league's elite target forwards is arguably the best.