Five Points: Columbus, Portland chase destiny in MLS Cup

BY Kyle McCarthy • December 6, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio --

Look closely at the paths followed by Columbus Crew SC and Portland Timbers on the way to MLS Cup.

Both teams meandered through their difficult periods to sort things out by the end of the season. Both teams reached their peak in the playoffs and received the necessary slice of fortune here and there to topple higher seeds. Both teams used those qualities to reach this one-off final.

Those parallels prompted introspection in both camps ahead of the final at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday. Is it meant to be? Is this our time? Is this our destiny?

“Do I believe in destiny? That’s a deep question,” Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. “I thought about this a lot, actually. Coaches look for destiny. They look for the story, the poetry of how things play out, where their careers go, how they develop, who they coach, where they come back to. I think coaches look for that a little bit. But I also believe that -- funny enough -- things do go in a circle. The ball’s round to go around. And things do have a funny way of coming around.”

This scenario ensures only one team can close the loop. Columbus is poised to win a final at home for the first time and vindicate the club-altering strides made over the past two years. Portland is primed to win the first professional soccer title for a city passionate about their Timbers. Both teams are worthy. It is now down to them to see whether they can deliver at the critical moment.

Control the tempo, control the game

Columbus relied on a more direct approach to dispatch New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference final, but Crew SC spent most of this season as a team dedicated to operating in possession.

Expect Crew SC to return to its roots ahead of this final. The desire to obtain and retain the ball is the primary characteristic of this Columbus side. Crew SC head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter built this team to keep possession and wield it intelligently and menacingly.

It is a particularly important component of the plan against the Timbers. Portland presents the greatest threat to Crew SC when Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri locate time and space to start the counter in midfield. Those strengths apply pressure on Crew SC to operate tidily on the ball to ensure those gaps do not emerge frequently.

“I think there will be different points in the game where it will be open,” Crew SC winger Ethan Finlay said. “The biggest thing for us is being able to control those moments. We’re a team of tempo. You don’t want to get into a marathon or a running match with a team like Portland. They are really good in transition. There are times when we’re going to have to slow the game down a little bit and concentrate on a little bit more on possession.”

Portland thrives with its balance in midfield …

In order for the Timbers to win MLS Cup for the first time, they require a good performance from their retooled central midfield trio. Porter assembled his hub of operations -- Nagbe, Valeri and Diego Chara -- at the end of the season, flipped his triangle to accommodate the more expansive Nagbe and watched his team take flight.

“It’s going to be a really good battle because they have some really good players like Nagbe, Valeri and Chara,” Crew SC midfielder Tony Tchani said. “I think it’s going to be difficult for us.”

Portland thrives in the center of the park because it boasts the right sort of balance. The roles are clearly defined. The players understand how to implement them. And they grasp how to compensate when the game requires it.

“It just happens more naturally,” Nagbe said. “Valeri is the more attacking-minded out of the three of us. Chara is the more defensive-minded out of the three of us. I’m naturally just in the middle of those two. It just ends up working out.”

The key for Columbus in this game: disrupt the easy give-and-take on the ball by forcing Nagbe to spend time tracking. Nagbe is a willing enough defensive player (he carried out those tasks very well against FC Dallas in Frisco last weekend), but he poses less of a threat inside his own half and prefers to carry the ball forward.

If Crew SC can dictate terms as it did against the Red Bulls’ central midfield in the East final and stop Nagbe from occupying his favored spots, then the Timbers face a struggle of their own.

… while Columbus establishes a solid base to give Higuain license to roam freely

Crew SC functions differently with its own influential midfield three. Tchani and the influential Wil Trapp (the deft touchstone in possession and the safety valve in front of the back four) adopt more conservative positions to allow Federico Higuain to operate in a free role.

Higuain scurries anywhere and everywhere in search of possession. He doesn’t contribute much defensively, but he troubles opposing teams by popping up in unusual spots and forcing them to compensate. His work rate and his ability to find spots at the right times plays an important role in how effectively Crew SC operates in possession.

“What I would say is that he’s not a typical number 10,” Berhalter said. “I think that’s how his role has pivoted. He’s more of a complete player in my mind. He’s able to transport the ball from the back line to the forward line. His work rate is very good. We ask him to move all over the field to get the ball. He’s not in one position, which makes him more unpredictable for the opponent.”

Portland must figure out how to reduce Higuain’s influence in the game. Chara needs to float to track him occasionally, but he requires help to maintain the proper midfield shape. It takes a collective effort to mitigate Higuain’s impact on the game. If the Timbers pitch in, then Higuain -- occasionally guilty of drifting out of matches -- might float in and out of the proceedings.

Both teams hope to threaten in the wide areas …

Columbus and Portland both plan to encourage their fullbacks to join the play in possession. The desire to join the play created some issues earlier in the season (particularly for Crew SC), but it also supplied plenty of width to complement all of that tidy work through the middle.

Keep a keen eye on how and when those fullbacks push forward. Crew SC right back Harrison Afful usually ventures into higher positions than Waylon Francis. Afful is particularly vital because he permits Ethan Finlay to drift inside to link up in possession and slice toward goal. Portland exercises a similar approach with Alvas Powell surging forward and Jorge Villafana trying to stay connected to serve balls into the penalty area.

It is a difficult balance to strike in a final, particularly if Portland tries to set out the stall deeply and wait for the right moment to push forward on the counter. Even if they do not, the Timbers must temper the menace of Afful and Francis to pave the way to victory. The positioning of the Timbers wingers (likely Dairon Asprilla on the right and Rodney Wallace) is important to check those runs, but Powell and Villafana must force them back, too.

“We need to do a good job defending the flanks,” Porter said. “They will get crosses in, even though we’ll defend well on the flanks. We need to do a good job of picking [Kei Kamara] up.”

… and place their center forwards in a position to decide MLS Cup

Kamara looms as one of the potentially decisive factors in the game. The veteran forward faces a fitness check after picking up a knock in training on Saturday, but he stands out as a potentially decisive figure. His 22-goal haul during the regular season reinforces the danger he poses. His threat is complex because he holds the ball up well to facilitate Finlay and Justin Meram when they tuck inside from the wide areas, pops behind the line to create room for others and wins more than his fair share of aerial duels.

“You try not to get 1v1 with him,” Timbers defender Nat Borchers said. “You always want to have help. He has all of the physical attributes you would want in a center forward. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s done this season. Had Sebastian Giovinco not come into the league, hands down, Kei Kamara is the MVP of this league. He’s scored in bunches. He’s done really well. He’s somebody obviously we’re going to have to keep track of.”

Similar sentiments apply to Timbers forward Fanendo Adi. New York troubled Crew SC in the dying embers at Red Bull Arena by employing more direct tactics and trying to find substitute Anatole Abang in the air. Portland isn’t likely to play as directly unless the circumstances require it, but Adi is the sort of player capable of exposing some of those frailties. Columbus captain Michael Parkhurst said he and his teammates must force Adi to drop off the line in order to reduce his impact.

“This is going to be a collective effort,” Parkhurst said. “Gaston [Sauro, Crew SC center back] and I are going to man mark him and help each other help. We’re going to need help from our midfielders because he’s usually playing balls off. We know he’s a handful in the box. It’s going to take a lot of effort -- guys blocking crosses -- to make it easier for us. He’ll win his fair share of balls, but, hopefully, we can keep him outside of the box.”


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