It’s certainly not a match-up anyone would’ve predicted prior to the season, but after nine months of play and three rounds of playoffs, it’s hard to argue that the Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers haven’t earned their shot at an MLS Cup title. They’re talented and tactically flexible teams on a roll, and each deservedly dispatched the favored top seeds in the conference finals, which concluded Sunday.
The league’s 20th season will end fittingly in its first soccer-specific stadium. A champion will be crowned on Dec. 6 in central Ohio.
Matchup: Columbus Crew (17-13-8) vs. Portland Timbers (17-11-11) at MAPFRE Stadium on Dec. 6 at 4 PM ET (ESPN, UniMás, TSN).
At Stake: The MLS championship and entry into the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League.
All-time series: Tied 2-2-2.
This season: Visiting Portland defeated Columbus 2-1 at MAPFRE Stadium on Sept. 26 in the clubs’ only meeting in 2015. The Timbers ended a four-game winless streak as Fanendo Adi scored in each half. Kei Kamara netted for the Crew, which was unable to further capitalize on a heavy advantage in possession.
How they got here: Columbus finished second in the Eastern Conference at 15-11-8. It defeated the Montreal Impact 4-3 on aggregate in the conference semifinals (1-2, 3-1 OT) and then the New York Red Bulls 2-1 on aggregate in the finals (2-0, 0-1).
Portland finished third in the Western Conference at 15-11-8. It defeated Sporting Kansas City, 7-6 on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw, in the knockout round. It then beat the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 on aggregate in the conference semifinals (0-0, 2-0) and FC Dallas 5-3 on aggregate in the finals (3-1, 2-2).
MLS Cup history: Columbus, in its 20th season, will make its second appearance. The Crew defeated New York 3-1 in MLS Cup 2008. Portland, in its fifth MLS season, will make its first appearance.
Three early MLS Cup storylines
Argentine enganches highlight a final of intriguing matchups
Columbus and Portland survived close calls during this postseason. The Crew needed a 77th-minute goal from Ethan Finlay to force extra time against Montreal and saw a last-gasp bid from the Red Bulls hit the post on Sunday. Portland escaped the knockout round when Sporting Kansas City rookie Saad Abdul-Salaam hit both posts on a potential game-winning penalty kick.
But both conference champs did more than enough over the course of the playoffs to book their tickets to the final, and their ability to adjust to the demands of a given game and beat you in different ways sets the stage for a compelling MLS Cup.
The likes of MVP finalist Kamara and Portland midfielder Darlington Nagbe, a newly-minted U.S. national teamer, may get more attention and press. But both Portland and Columbus play to the rhythm of their cultured Argentine enganche. Fernando Higuaín (Crew) and Diego Valeri (Timbers) fill the space behind the front line, establish connection and tempo and create opening and opportunities for their teammates. Higuaín had nine goals and 10 assists this season while Valeri had two tallies and 12 helpers, including four in the playoffs. They were among the top six MLS players in key passes per game (a pass leading to a teammate’s shot).
Behind the Argentines, both teams have robust defensive midfielders who aren’t afraid to mix it up. The Crew’s Tony Tchani and Portland’s Diego Chara are among the best in the league at their position. Columbus will have a slight advantage on the flanks, but Finlay, for one, will have to be sharper next weekend than he was on Sunday. He still was an attacking nuisance at Red Bull Arena but failed to finish anything off. Portland’s Dairon Asprilla, Lucas Melano and Rodney Wallace can deliver moments of brilliance but also occasionally fail to find the game.
In the penalty areas, target strikers will look to take advantage of back lines with questions attached. As well as the Crew did against the Red Bulls, it’s still a team that yielded 53 goals this season, the second highest total among the 12 playoff teams. Adi has 18 goals this season for the Timbers. Meanwhile, Portland was missing center back Liam Ridgewell (calf) in Sunday’s second leg against FC Dallas. The back four bent without breaking against a desperate host, but there’s no doubt Kamara (25 goals) and the Crew would rather see Norberto Paparatto alongside Nat Borchers instead of Ridgewell.
The Berhalter/Precourt revolution pays quick dividends
The Crew were struggling for relevance a few years ago and average attendance plunged to just above 12,100 per game in 2011, two years before California-based investor Anthony Precourt purchased the club.
"We want to be the Green Bay Packers of Major League Soccer, a small-market team that is globally relevant and has a consistent winning tradition," Precourt told SI.com at the time. “We very much recognize that to do that, we have to be more relevant here and we have to connect better to our market and make them proud.”
No one will mistake the Crew for the Packers or the Buckeyes, but the progress made on and off the field over the past two-plus years is remarkable. Precourt named former U.S. national team defender and Hammarby IF manager Gregg Berhalter as the Crew’s head coach and sporting director in November 2013. He’s built a team that had proven it can play with style and then, in shutting down top-seeded New York in the Eastern finals, can win games with cunning, grit and discipline. Heading into the home-and-home series, the Red Bulls hadn’t been shut out since late May. But they were neutralized by the Crew and managed to score their only goal in stoppage time of the second leg.
The emergence of the likes of Finlay, Justin Meram and Wil Trapp and the acquisitions of Kamara and Waylon Francis are a credit to Berhalter’s eye for talent and chemistry. Meanwhile, Precourt revamped the club’s image and led a logo redesign that was met with critical acclaim (to be fair, just about anything would have been an improvement over the incongruous construction workers). He also invested in stadium improvements. Attendance this season was the highest since 2002.
Once the poster child for MLS 1.0, the Crew now can claim to be a model for other small-market teams.
“From the coaching staff to the training staff, the trainers, the players, all the new guys that came into the team, we worked so hard and we knew what we could do,” Kamara told Fox on Sunday night, moments after the Crew lifted the conference championship trophy. “Everybody knew we were doing it for Columbus and it’s really, really good work from everyone,”
Timbers on verge of a new kind of history
Portland and its fans get a ton of credit for the atmosphere inside Providence Park and the rich culture that’s taken shape since the first Timbers season back in 1975. From Timber Joey and the log slices to the second-half singing of ‘You Are My Sunshine’, there are plenty of Rose City traditions to be proud of. And then there’s one that the Timbers Army probably doesn’t feel too good about: while the stadium may be full, the trophy case remains frustratingly empty.
The Timbers advanced to the NASL’s Soccer Bowl in their inaugural campaign and lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in San Jose. There have been 27 full seasons of play since then across multiple leagues without an appearance in a major final. Portland advanced to four semifinals and won the USL’s equivalent of the Supporters Shield in 2004 and 2009, but Timbers fans have been forced to watch rivals in Seattle and Vancouver win league titles and domestic cup competitions.
Now, in the 40th year and 28th season since that Soccer Bowl defeat—and their fifth in MLS—the Timbers have beat the rest of Cascadia to the punch and advanced to the MLS Cup final. The owner, coach and players are relatively new. But GM Gavin Wilkinson has been at the club since 2001 and there are supporters who’ve been around for much longer. Providence Park sits on the site of what was once Multnomah Field, which hosted athletic events in the 19th century. A stadium was built there in 1926. The Timbers’ roots run deep, as does the wait for a championship. Many of those aforementioned traditions will be highlighted this week as the club takes its turn in the spotlight. But the long wait for a title will be a storyline as well. This is a fan base that has paid its dues.