MLS Five Points: Crew SC, Timbers poised for intriguing MLS Cup

HARRISON, N.J. —

Crew SC, Timbers deserve their places in the final

Both teams entered their second legs with comfortable two-goal leads. MLS teams generally do not give away those sorts of margins in the playoffs, but Crew SC and the Timbers managed the demands well away from home. They kept their shapes well and set out their stalls intelligently. The solid foundation allowed them to frustrate the opposition without soaking up too much pressure. Those tenets permitted them to control the proceedings for long stretches and steer their way toward the final with comparative ease.

“You saw how we played,” Crew SC coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter said after the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory on Sunday night sent Columbus through with a 2-1 aggregate triumph. “It wasn’t the typical performance by us, but we identified their strengths and we wanted to turn that against them. You have to give the Red Bulls a lot of credit; they had a fantastic season. The way they play, it works perfectly. They create chances off of their pressure. We wanted to eliminate that and I think we did a good job.”

Expect both teams to tinker ahead of the final on Sunday. The measures used in the two-legged conference finals do not necessarily translate to the one-off date at MAPFRE Stadium. It is on both sides to figure out a way to tip the balance in midfield and dictate the cadence of the proceedings.

Fullbacks play key role for Crew SC over two legs

Berhalter identified the threat posed by Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam heading into this series and responded accordingly. Columbus spent ample time trying to discern how to blunt their impact and exploit the space available behind them. They achieved the feat by reducing the Red Bulls’ ability to proceed quickly in the wide areas and trusting Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis to occupy the proper spaces.

Afful and Francis shined in both matches and stood firm at Red Bull Arena. Afful marauded forward on the right — he consistently adopted higher positions than Francis as Crew SC tried to focus on that area and pin Kemar Lawrence inside his own half — and provided a key outlet as the visitors created three good chances inside the opening 40 minutes. Francis trained most of his focus on his one-versus-one duties against Sam. His consistency in those duels mitigated Sam’s influence and underscored the importance of dictating the terms in the wide areas.

Those measures — plus the solidity in central midfield and the quiet efficiency of Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro in central defense — allowed Columbus to dictate terms in the center of the park and frustrated the Red Bulls for most of the night.

Wright-Phillips operates in isolation until more direct threat emerges

No player captured that frustration more acutely than Bradley Wright-Phillips. He functioned as an isolated, peripheral figure for most of the two legs as Crew SC limited his ability to combine and relegated him to fighting for a series of hopeful crosses. By forcing predictable service time and time again, Crew SC choked off the supply lines and tempered Wright-Phillips’ impact.

“We didn’t let him in behind too often,” Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst explained. “He makes really good runs in behind off the back shoulders of defenders. But we were aware of those and really limited his chances to get in behind us. We identified that as a big strength of his. For the most part, I thought we did a good job.”

The calculus changed in the final 20 minutes when Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch inserted the robust Anatole Abang to serve as a touchstone up front. Abang claimed his fair share of headers and occupied defenders. His work freed up Wright-Phillips to operate in different areas and yielded the ultimately empty winner deep in second-half stoppage time.

“If it’s a game where we are feeling like we have to push late and we’ll be putting balls into the box, that’s where Abang is a threat,” Marsch said. “He’s effective and he’s strong. I thought he did very well when he came in.”

Portland punishes FC Dallas for naïve approach

FCD entered the second leg against Portland with a foreseeable path to the final. The away goal procured by David Texeira outlined a straightforward path — a 2-0 victory loomed as the ideal result after the 3-1 defeat at Providence Park last weekend — and pointed the best way forward. Instead of pursuing the game carefully, FCD showed a lack of discipline from the outset and suffered the consequences in the 2-2 draw on Sunday.

Portland spent most of the first hour punishing FCD’s indiscipline on the break. The firm defensive core — highlighted by the efficient midfield three and reinforced by a retooled back four — limited Mauro Diaz’s effectiveness and won possession time and time again. Those efforts paved the way forward on the break as FCD ceded too much space and left Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman (selected ahead of Zach Loyd after the Timbers roasted FCD on set pieces in the first leg and tormented for much of the night) with too much to do.

Those issues eventually manifested with the Timbers’ opener after 54 minutes. FCD conceded possession cheaply on the left and found its back four stretched immediately. The resulting sequence — including a couple of quick passes, one considerable display of strength from Adi to muscle Zimmerman away from the ball and a cool finish — illustrated the Timbers’ effectiveness.

Diaz, FCD muster response by going vertical

FCD eventually posed a threat in the final half-hour when Diaz found space and started to play balls over the top of the Timbers line. Those measures compensated from the lack of influence in the wide areas — Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo exerted little impact in the series — and placed Portland under more direct pressure.

Both FCD goals arrived through Diaz’s delivery over the top. Ryan Hollingshead drifted free on the left and slotted home the first goal. Second-half substitute Blas Perez illustrated his utility by nodding home at the near post from a Diaz free kick.

Those measures brought FCD within touching distance, but they did not mitigate the problems when Portland pushed forward on the counter. FCD escaped on several occasions until Lucas Melano confirmed the Timbers’ place with a well-taken goal in second-half stoppage time. The late equalizer summed up the balance of the night and ushered the Timbers through to their first MLS Cup berth.