Crew SC (probably) favorites for MLS Cup 2015 — but why?

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We are now less than 68 hours away from the kickoff of Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 (4 p.m. ET) between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers at MAPRFE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

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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.

The two sides’ lone meeting of 2015 ended a 2-1 victory for the Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium on Sept. 26.

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons another stadium site, plan ]

2. The best full back duo in the league

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.

[ MORE: Nemeth wins Goal of the Year; Kwarasey win save award ]

3. Ability to overload and overwhelm in midfield

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.

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

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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…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • 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.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • 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.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

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.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • 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.
  • Advantage: Timbers

MLS Team of the Week — Stars of conference semifinals leg no. 2

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I don’t know about you, but some 15 hours after the conclusion of four second legs of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs conference semifinals, my head is still spinning. I’m still trying to process what happened in the last seven minutes of Dallas 2-1 AET (3-3 agg., 4-2 PKs) Seattle; Kei Kamara’s amazing header to put Columbus past Montreal, 3-1 AET (4-3 agg.); how in the world D.C. United were so toothless over 180 minutes.

[ MORE: MLS Player of the WeekAll of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Simply put, it was the most thrilling, intense, heart attack-inducing nine straight hours of soccer my poor ticker has ever been forced to endure. And, you know what? I’m deeply saddened to be forced to wait until this time next year to (hopefully) experience something just like it once again.

[ LEG 2: FCD 2-1 (4-2 PKs) SEA | CLB 3-1(aet) MTL | VAN 0-2 POR | NY 1-0 DC ]

Chances are, if you make nine saves in a playoff elimination game, you’re going be to chosen the goalkeeper for the ensuing Team of the Week — that’s Columbus Crew SC ‘keeper Steve Clark. 20-year-old Matt Miazga anchored the Red Bulls defense for 180 scoreless minutes and seamlessly navigated the treachery of losing his center back partner for the season. Wil Trapp was beyond magnificent against Montreal on Sunday, acting as the lone central midfielder for 45 minutes, playing both ways with an engine that never stopped. Kamara scored twice and earned an ocean’s worth of redemption (missed penalty in the second half) with his extra-time winner.

Thoughts? Questions? Agreements? Disagreements? (Of course not.) Leave them in the comments section, as always. I’m not afraid to defend my picks.

[ MORE: 2015 MLS Team of the Week archive ]

MLS Team of the Week — MLS Cup playoffs (so far)

Goalkeeper: Steve Clark (Columbus Crew SC)

MLS Goalkeeper

Defenders: Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Waylon Francis (Columbus Crew SC), Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers)

MLS Defenders

Midfielders: Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Diego Chara (Portland Timbers), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas)

MLS Midfielders

Forwards: Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew SC), Fanendo Adi (Portland Timbers)

MLS Forwards

MLS Snapshot: Columbus Crew SC 2-0 Toronto FC

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The game in 100 words (or less): Red cards change games. Right or wrong, they just do. This game had one that was very wrongly given and it completely changed the course of the game, from Toronto FC threatening early, to Columbus Crew SC taking complete control shortly after.

[ PREVIEW: This weekend’s MLS schedule ]

Three moments that mattered

45′ — Morrow takes down Finlay, sees red — It was a questionable decision by referee David Gantar at best — Morrow looked to have gotten all ball and little or none of Ethan Finlay (below video) — but Gantar gave the foul just outside the box and sent Morrow to an early shower.

57′ — Meram with the breakthrough — Finlay played the perfect cross for Justin Meram, whose late, surging run to the penalty spot meant the subsequent header had plenty of power behind it. The ball nestled itself just inside Joe Bendik’s near post and the Crew were up 1-0.

61′ — Kamara doubles the lead — Kei Kamara could have easily scored three times last week, if not for Tyler Deric. This week, he got his first of the season, as Waylon Francis crossed a beautiful ball for Kamara, who beat an onrushing Bendik to the ball and delicately side-footed his first-time shot past the ‘keeper.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Gantar — It’s harsh on the ref, because he’s obviously got a tough job, but his poor decision to send Morrow off completely changed the game and robbed TFC of any chance to chase the game in the second half.

LINEUPS

Columbus Crew SC: Clark, Grana (Steindorsson 83′), Parkhurst, Pogatetz, Francis, Finlay (Jimenez 69′), Trapp, Saeid (George 76′), Higuain, Meram, Kamara

Goals: Meram (57′), Kamara (61′)

Toronto FC: Bendik, Creavalle, Caldwell (Hagglund 46′), Perquis, Morrow, Osorio (Morgan 46′), Bradley, Cheyrou, Giovinco (Warner 86′), Altidore, Findley

Roster talk, moves in MLS involve Edu, Arrieta, Amarikwa; Okugo to test Europe?

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The United States 4-1 loss to Ireland wasn’t close to the only news in American soccer, as three MLS teams made statements about their short-term futures on Tuesday.

In the case of Columbus and Chicago, we’re talking about declined and picked-up contract options, while Philadelphia admitted one of their best young players could be on the move in order to bring in Maurice Edu full-time from Stoke City.

[ USMNT: Match recap | Defense struggles ]

Union coach Jim Curtin said the club is optimistic about continuing to pair Maurice Edu with Carlos Valdes at center back, and that he recognizes that Philadelphia’s immediate future will likely be without franchise stalwart Amobi Okugo. They’ll offer the underrated back a new deal, but expect him in Europe.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“I’ve talked to him for several years that when you’re young is the time to try something like that,” Curtin said. “We’re pretty confident he’s going to take that option.”

Okugo, 23, is a gifted player who has represented the US at several levels but has yet to get a look under Klinsmann. His style would fit neatly in several European leagues, and he also is eligible to represent Nigeria.

[ USMNT: A right to be worried after Ireland blowout? ]

source: Getty ImagesNow to Columbus, where a Costa Rican international isn’t coming back to Gregg Berhalter’s team. The Crew have decided to decline the option of 31-year-old forward Jairo Arrieta. Berhalter said the signing of Kei Kamara and the emergence of big Aaron Schoenfeld made Arrieta expendable.

Many of the players whose options were picked up are not surprising, like Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Waylon Francis, Steve Clark and Federico Higuain. Check the full list of Crew option action here.

Now to Chicago, where Frank Yallop and the Fire have resigned Patrick Nyaro while exercising the options of six players including standout forward Quincy Amarikwa. They said goodbye to options on 11 players, notably Gonzalo Segares, Patrick Ianni, Bakary Soumare and Robert Earnshaw.

From MLSSoccer.com:

Nyarko joins seven other players who were already under contract for the 2015 season, including goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defenders Jeff Larentowicz and Lovel Palmer, midfielders Razvan Cocis and Harry Shipp and forwards Juan Luis Anangono and Mike Magee.

The Fire also revealed that Homegrown midfielder Victor Pineda is out of contract and that loan deals for US youth international Benji Joya and Tottenham loanee Grant Ward have expired.

It’s going to be a very different looking Fire in 2015.