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.

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.