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

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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

Boyd brace enough for USMNT v. Guyana

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Tyler Boyd scored a pair of goals including the 1,000th in United States men’s national team history as Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT opened its Gold Cup run with a somewhat misleading 4-0 defeat of Guyana in Minnesota late Tuesday.

Paul Arriola had a goal, an assist, and a shot that took two deflections including one off of Gyasi Zardes’ face in the win.

Weston McKennie had an assist in an impactful performance before leaving with injury in the second half. USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter said the injury was a cramp. Let’s hope so.

Next up for the USMNT is a Saturday match-up with Trinidad and Tobago in Cleveland. Guyana will meet Panama, who beat T&T 2-0 on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

The United States had plenty of possession to start, and Christian Pulisic was looking lively. Though positioned centrally in the formation, he often drifted to the left to get the ball and work toward the middle.

It was Guyana who nearly struck for an opener against the run of play, lashing over the goal off a short corner. Gyasi Zardes thought he’d forced a goal moments later, but the offside flag was up.

Weston McKennie played a gorgeous through ball into Tyler Boyd, and Boyd sent a promising pass to the middle of the box only to see a shot blocked by the packed-in defense. Then Pulisic was stopped point-blank by Akel Clarke.

McKennie then set up Arriola for the opener, with the DC United man slapping the side of his right foot through the ball to sent it around Clarke and into the goal.

Boyd the stung a shot wide of the far post after missing with a low drive earlier in the match. Clarke then made an outstanding save on a Nick Lima drive — again set up in part by McKennie — before Boyd hit a ball into outer space.

A nervy moment early in the second half gave way to relief, as Boyd struck with vigor off a delightful ball from Michael Bradley. This was a “Bradley in his AS Roma prime” long ball, and Boyd delivered with a fine low strike.

Zardes then made it 3-0 with a header he knew little about:

Berhalter would soon remove Pulisic and Bradley, and then an injury forced his hand on the third substitution.

That one could echo deep into the tournament if it’s anything more than precaution, with McKennie exiting the field.

Boyd then scored another terrific goal. It looked even better than his first until replays revealed a significant deflection en route to the scoreboard.

Zardes later cued up Boyd for a chance at the hat trick, but the Kiwi-born attacked hit his shot into the outside of the goal. He could’ve had five goals.

3 things from USMNT’s win v. Guyana

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Injuries, early inefficiency, and a newcomer making a statement were the biggest talking points of the United States men’s national team’s first match of the 2019 Gold Cup.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Christian Pulisic was back, but not on the score sheet, and was able to be rested over the final half hour or so, and the USMNT scored its 1000th goal in program history.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

Beyond that, here’s what we’re thinking after the 4-0 win.

Ouch, ouch, stop that, ouch: Injury worries

Weston McKennie started slow but eventually played a series of sensational passes en route to an assist on the night.

His industry moving forward and backward were remarkable on the night, but Schalke’s Swiss army knife had to leave the match with a leg injury with a quarter hour to play.

That’s a problem for a side which also saw Tyler Boyd pull up following his bid for a hat trick and is also without Tyler Adams, Sebastian Lletget, and Duane Holmes in the midfield alone.

John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are also missing from a U.S. side hoping to make a serious bid for another final at the Gold Cup.

Berhalter said the injury that cost McKennie the final 16 minutes was a cramp. Let’s hope so.

Tyler Boyd shoots his shot

No, he’s not the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver.

Yes, he’s inspiring a bit of hope for the American Outlaws.

The New Zealand-born 24-year-old likes to shoot, and boy did he in bagging a brace on Wednesday.

Capped five times by New Zealand but now cap-tied to the USMNT by participating in this match, Boyd scored twice and could’ve probably scored two or three more on the day.

The son of an Kiwi father and American mother, Boyd delivered the goods in front of both of them in Minnesota.

“It’s for my family,” Boyd said on Fox after the game. “I’m really proud to be able to represent this country. To do it on this stage is an honor and a blessing. Just a dream come true. It’s been years and years and years of work. It’s been my dream since (I was) a kid. I don’t have the words to describe it.”

Boyd was injured — more on that later — but it looked like it could’ve been minor. His creativity and desire for the ball will be needed moving forward, as he was a fine complement to Paul Arriola in industry and desire.

It still wasn’t good enough

Do not forget that Guyana is the 177th ranked team in the FIFA rankings  — a lofty 166th in EloRatings — and the Yanks simply didn’t have the quality or understanding to pile up the goals.

The Guyanese held the U.S. in check for the first half hour before Weston McKennie and Paul Arriola teamed up for a classy goal, and Bradley’s link up with Tyler Boyd for the second was even better.

But Zardes’ goal was a blocked shot that unknowingly pinged off his pace to the point that the American striker appeared dazed for the duration of the celebration. And Boyd’s good-looking second goal took a turn off a Guyanese defender on the way into the net.

As it stands, this looks like a team that wouldn’t beat Panama and might struggle against anyone should Pulisic go down (and especially if McKennie stays down).

USMNT player ratings from defeat of Guyana

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The United States men’s national team was solid, but not particularly impressive in its 4-0 defeat of Guyana early Wednesday to start its Gold Cup.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

There were stars in this one, with Weston McKennie and Tyler Boyd finding their strides, but still a lot of question marks (in some ways due to the competition).

Let’s get into it. As always, “6” is the baseline for ratings: a passable performance.

Starting XI

Zack Steffen — 6 — Had very little to do, even in possession, as expected.

Nick Lima — 6 — Looking comfortable moving forward and was aggressive in defense.

Walker Zimmerman — 7 — Passed the ball well, but like his goalkeeper and fellow defenders, was largely untested.

Aaron Long — 6 — A step up from his nightmare against Venezuela.

Tim Ream — 6 — An okay cog in the back three after a rough pair of friendly losses.

Michael Bradley (Off 63′) — 6 — For the first 20 minutes, it was clear this was his first match in a month. But his game improved, capped by a remarkable assist to Boyd for the 1,000th goal in USMNT history. Fitting.

Weston McKennie (Off 74′) — 7 — A slow start, but on the night not only assisted a goal but played three or four world-class touch passes. Gregg Berhalter said the injury that cost him the final 16 minutes was a cramp. Let’s hope so.

Paul Arriola — 8 — His aggression and ambition paid off, as he rebounded from some questionable performances to get a goal and set up two others (*thou

Christian Pulisic (Off 63′) — 7 — Instantly the most dangerous player on the field, would’ve likely had a couple assists with a capable finisher up top.

Tyler Boyd — 8.5 — The former New Zealand international made a lot of fans tonight, scoring two goals, and was in position to score four or even five.

Gyasi Zardes — 5 — Credit the motor, but look forward to Jozy Altidore being back at full fitness.

Substitutions

Wil Trapp (On 63′) — 6 — Better than his miserable pair of friendlies.

Cristian Roldan (On 63′) — 6 — Looked more lively in attack, but given the opposition that’s not terribly impressive.

Djordje Mihailovic (On 74′) — N/A —

Tyler Boyd scores 1,000th goal in USMNT history (video)

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The 700th game in USMNT history has birthed the 999th and 1,000th goals in program history.

The Yanks led Guyana 1-0 at halftime of their 2019 Gold Cup debut on a Paul Arriola goal set up by Weston McKennie when they hit their milestone.

Fittingly, the goal was produced by a vintage ball from one of the program’s all-timers.

[ LIVE: Latest Gold Cup scores, stats, lineups ]

Michael Bradley swept a delightful diagonal ball to a seemingly offside Tyler Boyd, who scored his first goal for the USMNT via a low driven shot across the goal and into the side netting.

The first goal came on Aug. 20, 1916 from a fella named C.H. Spalding, who later played baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators.

The 1,000th came via a New Zealand-born dual national who played last season in Turkey on loan from a Portuguese club.