Armchair Analyst: Portland Timbers set the tone in MLS Cup victory over Columbus Crew SC

There's a great scene from the old documentary "Our Way," which chronicles the US men's national team's journey in the 2002 World Cup. Head coach Bruce Arena is exhorting his troops before the opener against Portugal.

"First foul, first card, first shot, first goal," Arena says. The US, on that day, went 4-for-4 on those goals, jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and held on for what is still one of the great wins in program history.

I suspect Caleb Porter gave something close to that same speech in Sunday's MLS Cup win for the Portland Timbers, a 2-1 result over Columbus Crew SC that featured the fastest goal in MLS Cup history at 27 seconds.

Diego Valeri was brilliant and opportunistic and ruthless on that play. But check out Liam Ridgewell in the background of this clip:

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Portland were already selling out with their high press, and you can see one of their defensive leaders pushing his team even higher. They were determined to, at the very least, land a couple of body blows in the game's first couple of minutes.

Instead they landed an uppercut, and the hosts never really recovered.

This is a theme that's been prevalent throughout these playoffs: The team that opened aggressively was, more often than not, the team that went home happy. Portland did this same type of thing to FC Dallas and Sporting KC, and to a certain extent to Vancouver Whitecaps. Given the risks Columbus take playing out of the back – risks that more than one current MLS player has described to me as "insane," and risks that they largely eschewed against the high pressure of the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Championship – it should not be a surprise that Portland came into this one hell bent for leather.

So there Valeri is, 110 yards from his own goal, getting right in Steve Clark's mug. And there's the rest of the Timbers, closing down easy outlets. And there's Ridgewell, urging them to press higher, harder and more.

This was the Portland Timbers deciding that they would decide where and how the game was played.

It took less than 30 seconds for that to be made clear. It took 90 more minutes for them to lift their first-ever MLS Cup.


1. Game State Of Mind

So what happens when you go down 1-0 inside of 30 seconds, and down 2-0 inside seven minutes? You alter the state of the game.

"Game state" is analytics jargon for what the score of the game is and how it affects the tactical and personnel decisions of the teams on the field. Down a goal late? You're probably bringing on extra attackers and pushing forward recklessly. Up a goal early? Maybe you're holding on for dear life, or maybe you're pretending it's still 0-0. Up two goals? OK – then you're probably switching things up and playing something that's risk averse.

And that's what happened for the Timbers. They got out to that early lead and, even after giving up a goal to Kei Kamara to make it 2-1, they still decided to be deep, compact, and totally dedicated to making Columbus chase the game. And obviously Columbus had to chase the game because of the score (the game state).

In this case, "tight and compact" means keeping Ridgewell and Nat Borchers, his partner in central defense, in the central channel at almost all times. After the first 10 minutes they hardly strayed outside of the 18:

If Portland had been forced to chase the game at all, they'd have pushed their fullbacks further forward. And when that happens, there are occasional counterattacks into the space those fullbacks leave behind. And when that happens, Ridgewell and Borchers (or both) have to come out of the middle and make a play in the open field against the Columbus wingers, or a flaring forward.

Sometimes central defenders make those plays. Other times they do not, and that is when a disproportionate number of goals are scored in the modern game.

The ideal, then, is for central defenders to remain "central," especially against a center forward as physical and productive as Kamara. That map above, which shows Ridgewell's (No. 24) and Borchers's (No. 7) defensive actions and passes from from minutes 8-through-90 of this one, shows that the Timbers achieved that ideal. They barely strayed from the middle, never had to make a play in the open field, and were allowed to spend the entire game just clearing the ball upfield.

There was no pretense and no mystery. They hit no meaningful passes and didn't have to make any last-second tackles. They just repeatedly cleaned up the mess in front of Adam Kwarasey (zero saves on the day), forcing Columbus to win the game from out wide or not at all.

This is the advantage of controlling the game state. The Timbers defenders could just defend.


2. Quality Control

There was one play, early on, that stuck in my head. It's probably not the play you think – and yes, we'll get to that one presently.

It was a play that was, for lack of a better descriptor, "Crew SC soccer" distilled to its purest form. They shuttled the ball quickly and accurately from back-to-front. Their attackers swapped spots on the run and with a purpose. They got the Portland Timbers defense really, really uncomfortable, and made them scramble.

And then they hit a cross, which they've done more often and to better effect than any other team in MLS this season. Columbus have shown that crossing the ball can, in fact, be beatiful, and here they were, not six minutes into their second-ever MLS Cup, and Kamara was putting one on a platter. All that stuff above about Ridgewell and Borchers never having to make a play in the open field? Well, here they are five minutes in, and neither was able to make the play:

You could certainly argue that was a missed handball by the refs (there deserves to be plenty of commentary about the guys who called the game), and I don't blame Columbus fans for fixating on that.

Handball or not, though, Federico Higuain has to do better there. Your No. 10 has to make magic. Your DP difference-maker has to do anything aside from squibbing a four-yard pass to the opposing defensive midfielder.

This is Higuain in a nutshell, though. He is brilliant at getting into the right spots, and he is an occasional scorer of highlight-reel goals. But his his ability to make special plays is compromised by his first touch, which comes and goes.

In Sunday's loss Higuain's touch didn't come and go; it went and went and went. Time and again he popped up in spots to help build meaningful strings of possession, or to unlock the Timbers defense. Time and again he played himself into trouble with that first touch, or took one too many and allowed the Portland duo of Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara the time to close him down and snuff out any momentum the home team was building.

This was Columbus's moment. It was the biggest non-play of the game for Crew SC, and it shouldn't have been.


3. Don't Cross The Line

I avoid talking about officials in this column because I pretty firmly believe that A) bad calls are part of the game, and B) they tend to even out over the course of the season.

It's harder in any kind of final, though, and this one will live on in Crew SC lore:

Obviously that call was 100 percent, completely blown. Columbus fans are right to be upset.

Just as obvious is that Tony Tchani should not have stopped playing, and that Harrison Afful should never, ever have let Rodney Wallace get inside of him on the back post. Portland were opportunistic right when they needed to be, and Crew SC were mentally weak at the exact wrong time.

There's nothing tactical to really analyze on the play, since nobody in their right mind had Lucas Melano crossing to Wallace for the MLS Cup-winning goal. Melano had only completed six crosses all season, and Wallace hadn't put a headed shot on target since July of 2014.

So the point is that the strangest things can win you an MLS Cup – Conor Casey poking one home from the seat of his pants; Frankie Hejduk scoring on the mother of all overlaps; a Robbie Keane flicked header into the path of Landon Donovan.

Wallace's game-winner is now in that pantheon. It also probably stands alone as the most controversial moment in Cup history.

To Portland fans, though, that doesn't matter. First foul, first card, first shot, first goal.

First Cup. Congrats to all involved.


A few more things to ponder...

6. Crew SC put exactly one shot on goal all game, and were particularly punchless on the few set pieces they got. There were a few tweets flying around about them being "too cute" in the attacking third, and I kind of agree. They needed to test Kwarasey – who's prone to giving up rebounds – far more often than they actually did.

5. This whole sequence is the Pass of the Week:

4. Keeping Ridgewell, Borchers and Chara central (I'd wager this was the least ground Chara's covered inthe 4-3-3 this season) put a ton of work onto the plates of the Timbers fullbacks. Both Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell were more than up to the task:

3. I thought that Fanendo Adi's strength on the ball would be the decisive factor for the Timbers, but full credit to Gaston Sauro and especially Michael Parkhurst for matching up with him for the full 90 minutes. Adi had his moments – especially a great header that caromed off the post – but he wasn't able to impose his will on the game like he did against FC Dallas.

2. Ethan Finlay had a really, really bad game. His skillset doesn't lend itself to the type of game Columbus had to play in this one, and Portland took advantage. Justin Meram, on the other side, was more "active" than "effective," while Cedrick Mabwati created the most danger of the Crew SC wingers on the day.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week:

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