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

UCL wrap: PSG runs over Real; Atalanta clobbered on debut

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Real Madrid, UEFA Champions League goals, and Angel Di Maria go together pretty well.

[ MORE: Man Utd extends Lindelof ]

The man who scored a decisive goal for Real in a UCL Final scored two as Paris Saint-Germain throttled the 10-time champions in France without Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, and Neymar.

PSG 3-0 Real Madrid

If it’s possible for Zinedine Zidane to feel heat under his seat, it’s probably happening right about now.

Real Madrid was absolutely cooked by a clinical PSG missing its trident, with Di Maria scoring two goals in the win.

Juan Bernat was exceptional in the win, and set up two goals including Thomas Meunier’s late insurance tally.

Dinamo Zagreb 4-0 Atalanta

The Serie A visitors made their UEFA Champions League debut, and boy did it fall flat.

Down 1-0 early on a Marin Leovac opener, Atalanta surrendered a hat trick to Mislav Orsic in the loss. The 26-year-old midfielder is fresh off his first cap for Croatia. More seem on the horizon, yeah?

Considering their group includes Man City and Shakhtar Donetsk, La Dea won’t appreciate losing four goals in the differential column against a perceived bottom dweller for the group.

Elsewhere

Olympiacos 2-2 Tottenham — RECAP, Pochettino reaction
Shakhtar Donetsk 0-3 Man City — RECAP
Atletico Madrid 2-2 Juventus — RECAP
Club Brugge 0-0 Galatasaray
Bayer Leverkusen 1-2 Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayern Munich 3-0 Red Star Belgrade

Atletico Madrid erases 2-goal deficit in Juventus draw

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s going to like Diego Simeone a little bit less today — if possible — as the Argentine manager engineered a come-from-behind draw to get a measure of revenge for last season’s knockout round ouster.

[ RELATED: Shakhtar 0-3 Man City ]

And Ronaldo won’t be too happy with himself, either, as the Juve star missed a chance to win it in stoppage time, moments after Atletico Madrid had scored the final goal of 2-2 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano.

That left Mexican star Hector Herrera the unabashed hero, as he headed home in stoppage time.

Juve scored a beauty to open it, with Juan Cuadrado spinning a left-footed wonder strike that painted the side netting.

Blaise Matuidi had Juve up 2-0, but Atleti pulled one back via a Stefan Savic header off a set piece in the 70th minute.

That’s when Herrera nodded his goal home.

But Ronaldo… how often has he scored this kind of goal in this competition?

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Man City midfield controls Shakhtar in Ukraine

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Manchester City got its UEFA Champions League run off to a convincing start, easing some nerves from the weekend with a 3-0 defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan set each other up for goals, Gabriel Jesus also scored, and Fernandinho partnered with Nicolas Otamendi at center back to earn the clean sheet.


Three things we learned

1. Midfield runs the match: Center backs aren’t all that vital if the ball never gets to them, and Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri were exceptional (even with the latter taking an early yellow card). Rodri completed every single one of his 82 passes in helping City control the park, departing with less than a quarter-hour to play.

2. De Bruyne dangerous on an off day: Kevin De Bruyne just couldn’t find that final ball, constantly in dangerous areas but unable to execute that moment. Credited with three key passes including th, his shooting was the glaring difference between 3-0 and 5-0.

3. Shakhtar shows creative flair: Taison and Marlos both showed a knack for taking on defenders, each credited with four dribbles on the day. It was Shakhtar’s best chance to break down a disciplined City, and the closest the hosts came to succeeding on the day.

Man of the Match: Rodri


A Kevin De Bruyne free kick provided an early threat, but Rodri’s header was a bit off and unable to open the scoring in Ukraine.

Shakhtar then had a nice spell of possession, but City was up to the task. Rodri led a chance in the other direction and sent a ball back De Bruyne for a header, which was wide like the first.

Mahrez put City ahead on a rebound after Ilkay Gundogan took a Gabriel Jesus feed and pushed the ball off the post.

The Algerian didn’t need a post to return the favor, sending a delightful pass into the path of Gundogan for a smooth finish an 2-0.

De Bruyne finally got his assist when he took care of a bounding ball to Jesus for a chop into the goal.

Pochettino: ‘We didn’t respect the plan’ v. Olympiacos

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A “very disappointed” Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino was left seething after his team threw away a 2-0 lead in Greece, drawing Olympiacos in its first UEFA Champions League match of the season.

Even with that lead at halftime in Piraeus, Pochettino warned his players that it wasn’t going well.

[ RECAP: Olympiacos 2-2 Spurs ]

“From the beginning we had a plan,” Pochettino said, via Football.London. “We didn’t respect the plan. I told the players at half-time. We scored two goals but if you only analyze the performance it wasn’t great. We conceded a lot of chances to them and the first goal was so painful. We didn’t translate that type of aggression these type of games demand.”

Olympiacos entered the match with a reputation for fine defense, allowing only one goal in their last 10 outings, so Pochettino would’ve been happy with the finishing.

But Spurs were again sloppy at the back, and blew the same lead it tossed aside in last month’s North London Derby.

Olympiacos away is a step up from Palace at home, but this did not often look like the team that bossed Roy Hodgson‘s Eagles to the tune of 4-0 at the weekend.

“How many times we didn’t anticipate today and how we weren’t proactive like we were against Crystal Palace? At this level you need to match your opponent. That is the first demand.”

Tottenham has three matches before its next UCL encounter, Oct. 1, versus Bayern.