The game in 100 words (or less): Two and a half months into the 2017 MLS season, neither the Portland Timbers nor Atlanta United are where they hoped to be — where they thought they’d be after red-hot starts to the season. Portland, who came back from a goal down in the second half to draw the expansion side at Providence Park on Sunday, raced out to a perfect start in their first three games, by a combined score of 10-3; since then, Caleb Porter’s side has won just two of eight. Atlanta, on the other hand, won two of their first three and scored a boatload of goals in the process; since then, they’ve won just one of seven, though six of the seven have been played on the road (their home schedule is backloaded with Mercedes-Benz Stadium still under construction). Six points from seven road games isn’t a terrible return, especially for an expansion team, but they’re sorely missing Josef Martinez (quad injury), though he’s expected back very soon.
46′ — Gressel beats Gleeson to start the 2nd half — 24 seconds on the clock, Atlanta quickly moved the ball up the field, and Julian Gressel applied the difficult finish from the top of the 18-yard box.
50′ — Ridgewell heads home at the back post — Set-piece defending is supposed to be Portland’s biggest weakness, but here’s Liam Ridgewell taking advantage of acres of space as the ball bounces across the face of goal.
Police said Gleeson rear-ended another vehicle and called Ridgewell, who arrived later to help. Neither Gleeson nor the driver of the vehicle he hit was injured in the accident.
Gleeson, who is from New Zealand, faces charges of driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless driving and reckless endangerment while Ridgewell, who is British, faces a DUII charge.
The team issued a statement Tuesday that said it has been in “close contact with the players, local law enforcement and the league office” and will not comment further until additional information is known.
FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2015 — Columbus Crew SC vs. Portland Timbers
Sunday’s final is scheduled for a 4 p.m. ET kickoff. Starting lineups for both sides can be found below. Kei Kamara, who was injured in Crew SC’s final training session yesterday afternoon, starts up for the Black and Gold. For Portland, Liam Ridgewell returns from a calf injury to start alongside Nat Borchers in defense, while Caleb Porter has opted for Lucas Melano over Dairon Asprilla on the wing.
Follow along with Sunday’s MLS Cup final action at the link below.
Here at PST, we’ve already delved into just what it would mean if the Timbers are crowned 2015 champions in their first MLS Cup appearance, so now it’s time to take a look at their opponents, and how Crew SC, who are after MLS Cup no. 2, will go about attacking one of the league’s stingiest defenses (39 goals conceded in 34 games – third-fewest).
1. Home-field advantage — it matters in MLS Cup
Since MLS opted to play MLS Cup at non-neutral sites in 2012 (the 2011 final was played at a pre-determined site which also ended up being an LA Galaxy home game), home teams are 3-0 (4-0 counting LA in 2011). LA won three times at home (2011, 2012 and 2014), while Sporting Kansas City were crowned 2014 champs on their home field.
Full backs matter in the modern game — they matter a lot. As we’ve gotten away from the days of 4-4-2, which provided lots of additional defensive cover to full backs through wide midfielders sitting much deeper, the two-way demands placed upon full backs have skyrocketed. Gregg Berhalter knows this well, which is why he made a point to sign a pair of do-everything fullbacks inside his first two seasons in charge — left back Waylon Francis (winter of 2013) and right back Harrison Afful (summer of 2015) to serve as massive building blocks for Crew SC.
Afful arrived only in August, yet he’s established himself as the best right back in MLS; opposite him, Francis is in the same conversation at left back; together, they are far and away the best duo. (Coincidentally, Portland’s Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell might just be no. 2.) As discussed this week on a podcast I host, the biggest impact Crew SC’s full backs will have during Sunday’s final will be exhibited in the amount of time Timbers wingers Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla spend tracking back into their own half to defend, which will ultimately see Fanendo Adi stranded on an island up top, trying to hold the ball up against three and four defenders again and again. Oh, and they’re also really solid defensively, often times freeing wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram to stay well up the field with even more freedom to attack.
There’s probably no team in MLS that regularly overwhelms opponents by overloading one side, or one player, with the success of Crew SC. Take, for instance, Diego Chara in Sunday’s showdown — playing as the (presumed) lone defensive midfielder, he’ll be simultaneously responsible for playmaker Federico Higuain; center forward Kei Kamara, when he drops into midfield; and wingers Finlay and Meram when they tuck inside, as they’ll look to do every time the Black and Gold are in full flow.
Throw in the fact that Villafana and Powell are likely to need help in regular two-on-one situations with overlapping full backs, and Chara’s plate is going to be extra full on Sunday. It also means center backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell will be defending hugely athletically superior players in lots of space, which is far from ideal. The obvious solution is to play one of Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury next to Chara to ease the Colombian’s burden, but would mean Darlington Nagbe is shunted back out to the wing, where he proved largely ineffective for nearly five full seasons. New to his quasi-box-to-box central midfield role, Nagbe’s the one who has to step up and hang out in Higuain’s back pocket all game long for the Timbers to have a chance of slowing down a vicious Crew SC attack.
When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…
Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
Timbers midfield three(Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)
Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.