The Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers have played 40 and 41 matches, respectively, in 2015 ahead of their MLS Cup final matchup on Sunday. Somewhere along the line, these two franchises made the moves that would eventually lead to them outlasting all others and giving themselves the chance to win the league’s biggest prize.
They both finished with 15-11-8 regular-season records and within three of each other in goal difference (given MLS's structure, their schedules weren't identical), with Columbus’ narrow edge giving it hosting rights this weekend. But neither team won its conference in the regular season, and both experienced winless streaks of four games or more early on, making their ascents all the more intriguing.
The season highlights for most MLS teams can be broadly broken into two categories: preseason and late season. The nature of the league’s regular season means that events later in the year take precedent in terms of importance for the team’s playoff qualification and standing in December.
However, those seeds are planted in decisions made before a ball is even kicked in the spring and begin to take hold through the typical period of growing pains and the mid-summer slog before flourishing in the fall. Now that the season’s final results are available minus the final, it’s possible to look back through the hours and hours of play and draw conclusions from a select few events that foreshadowed Columbus and Portland’s finish as conference champions.
Let’s take a look back at those moments, listed in rough chronological order:
Porter tweaks his philosophy
The groundwork for a more balanced Portland team was laid after a disappointing, though not disastrous, 2014 season in which the Timbers failed to make the playoffs, missing out by a single point. Despite winning MLS Coach of the Year in his debut season and running opponents over with his trademark possession-and-pressure style, Portland's Caleb Porter realized that his team needed a bit more balance.
So he studied the king of pragmatism, José Mourinho, in the offseason and began implementing some of Chelsea’s more defensive and direct tendencies in Portland. The result was a team that could still score goals and attack fluidly but that also conceded 13 fewer goals in the regular season.
Kamara returns, scores buckets of goals
Fans were already used to seeing Kei Kamara score goals, as he scored or threatened to hit double-digit tallies in each season since his 2010 breakout with what were then the Kansas City Wizards. A one-year stint in England left him with just four to his name but gave him a new sense of energy and preparation upon his return to MLS with Columbus.
He set a career high with 22 goals and matched his best with eight assists this season, then added three more tallies in the postseason. He’s an MVP finalist who fell short to Sebastian Giovinco’s astronomical numbers in that race, but he can still add something Giovinco couldn’t on Sunday–lift a championship trophy.
From start to finish, Finlay's career year
You could make an argument that without Ethan Finlay on the wing, Kamara wouldn’t have had the same type of season and vice versa.
Finlay assisted six of Kamara’s goals, nearly half of his 13 total helpers on the season, and he added a dozen goals of his own, half of which came from Kamara assists.
Gregg Berhalter’s team has put together a fast-paced, high-powered attack that scored 58 goals in the regular season and became one of the league’s most dangerous. Finlay was named an all-star along with Kamara, and along with Justin Meram on the opposite flank and Federico Higuaín underneath the target man comprises the brunt of it.
Columbus shores up leaky back line
The Crew's other end of the lineup was far less impressive until the summer transfer window. The 53 goals Columbus gave up were good for second-worst among all playoff teams after Toronto FC’s 58, and the team hardly settled in the back until late in the season.
The Crew signed Harrison Afful and Gastón Sauro in late summer, and they finished the regular season with two clean sheets before conceding four goals in four postseason games—a much better rate than the 1.6 per game it was giving up before.
Afful has also added some spark in the attack with two assists, and Sauro has been a steady partner for Michael Parkhurst in central defense.
Columbus managed to shut out the Red Bulls–a team that hadn't been blanked since May 24–for 180 minutes before conceding in stoppage time of the second leg of their Eastern Conference final.
Nagbe moves into central midfield (again)
With Diego Valeri out recovering from his torn ACL early in the season, Portland filled the gap in central midfield by sliding Darlington Nagbe in from his typical position on the wing.
When Valeri returned, Nagbe resumed his usual duties after an uneventful time in the center—until the Timbers’ 1-0 win at Real Salt Lake on Oct. 14, when the two played there together.
It didn’t provide much of a spark the first time, but it certainly did the second. Playing Valeri and Nagbe in front of a single defensive midfielder has proven to be a stroke of genius that made Nagbe an undisputed call-up for the United States national team and turned the Timbers attack into a dangerous force.
Timbers take down Galaxy, 5-2
On the heels of Nagbe’s second move into the middle, the Timbers went away for their second game of the week against the LA Galaxy.
Needing a result to avoid potentially missing the postseason again, Portland reversed a 1-0 deficit at halftime for a 5-2 win, with every goal coming in the final 25 minutes of the game.
That’s the result that really indicated that the Timbers could make a deep run in the postseason. Against a high-powered perennial title contender, and down a goal, Portland made a statement of intent that has carried through to the present.
Kwarasey, Portland tie for league shutout lead
It’s not just the Portland attack that has improved in 2015; the defense, anchored by newcomer Adam Kwarasey in goal, put up 13 clean sheets.
That tied for the league lead, and the Timbers followed it by conceding just once total in three straight games against the explosive Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas in the playoffs.
Team leaders Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell also played a big role in the Timbers’ defensive stoutness, repeatedly showing their calm in pressure situations and adding goals in big moments on the other end.
The team also finished with a winning record when Norberto Paparatto, who seemed to be a massive liability soon after joining from Tigre in Argentina, had to fill in.
Crew beats D.C. emphatically to finish season
The equivalent of Portland’s 5-2 win came just a couple weeks later for Columbus, when it beat D.C. United 5-0 on the final day of the regular season. It was essentially a playoff game, as the winner would earn a first-round bye, and the loss sent D.C. all the way down to fourth place in the conference.
Impressively, Columbus did it without Kamara or Higuaín in the lineup, both suspended due to yellow-card accumulation. The win also polished off a slow build to the top of the East that the Crew had been cultivating since standing as low as eighth in June.
Crazy playoff shootout goes Portland’s way
As far as symbolic moments go, the Timbers’ shootout victory over Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round of the playoffs seemed pretty emblematic of what was to come. Portland saw its opponent miss two shots that would have sent SKC through, including one on which Saad Abdul-Salaam hit both posts before the ball pinged away from goal.
When a team wins in that fashion, it’s hard not to think the supernatural just might be on its side. The Timbers haven’t once looked as vulnerable since that game, carrying the confidence from winning one of the most bizarre shootouts possible into the MLS Cup final.
Crew hold on late against Red Bulls
Columbus’ own playoff drama came much more recently and could have ended in massive heartbreak if not for its own luck with the post. Up 2-0 after a dominant first-leg victory against the New York Red Bulls, the Crew gave up a 93rd-minute goal that was nearly followed by another, but Bradley Wright-Phillips smacked his header off the post two minutes later.
Every championship team needs some luck to get in position to win it, and both Columbus and Portland have benefited from some drama going their way. As a result of their preparation, execution and good fortune, they both now stand just 90 minutes from lifting the trophy.