MLS Cup 2015 roundtable: Storylines, keys and predictions

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It’s time, once again, for the PST staff to pool its collective brainpower together in an attempt to forecast Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 final between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

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From the storylines, to the keys to the game, to predicting the final score and goalscorers, we’ve got all the answers right here. So, really, why even watch the game? (Just kidding… watch the game and check back with PST for full coverage of Sunday’s finale.)

1. Who’s the bigger surprise to be playing in MLS Cup 2015?

Joe Prince-Wright: I would say Portland. After the season Caleb Porter’s side had last season, and for most of this season, it was hard to see this coming. We all knew they possessed hugely talented players but having them all hit top form at exactly the right time is so difficult to predict. Columbus have ground out wins and have been steady and solid all season. Portland have peaked at precisely the right time.
Andy Edwards: It has to be Portland. From looking likely to miss the playoffs so late into the season, to the HE HIT BOTH POSTS!!! penalty scare against Sporting Kansas City, to running up against the no. 1 and 2 seeds in the Western Conference, everything on paper seems to say, “They should have been gone by now.” Plus, I picked Crew SC to win the title back in March.
Nicholas Mendola: Portland, if only because Caleb Porter and company had questions all year and the Crew’s stability in the midfield is admirable, desired, and so, so good.
Kyle Lynch: You have to go with the Portland Timbers, who only clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. Then, they were nearly eliminated in the first round before a goal deep into extra-time before surviving a wild penalty shootout against Sporting KC. That win gave the Timbers a lot of momentum, going from barely making the postseason to playing in MLS Cup.
Kyle Bonn: Portland. They first had to make the playoffs with their late-season push. They topped a mediocre yet experienced Sporting KC in the first round on penalties (which are always a total roll of the dice), blanked a solid Vancouver side, then stunned everyone by besting FC Dallas in the West finals. The Crew did the same on their side of the conference finals as well, but as a much more consistent team during the regular season, so their result wasn’t as surprising as Portland’s

[ MORE: Projected starting XIs for Sunday’s final ]

2. Is it a good (or bad) thing for MLS to have an MLS Cup without an LA or New York team, or any of the league’s highest-paid players?

JPW: From an exposure standpoint, sure, it’s probably better to have bigger market teams and the biggest names playing in the showpiece final. However, I really like the fact that the parity in MLS is on show here with two teams built sensibly and who don’t get talked about too much outside of their passionate fanbases and home cities. Both franchises deserve huge credit and around the world it shows that the salary cap model in soccer truly does give anyone a chance of winning it all.
Edwards: From a TV ratings standpoint, it’s terrible — the numbers will be bad. From a strictly soccer perspective, it’s great. The “retirement league” narrative has to be just about finished by now, right? It’s the younger teams, the ones that build from within, the ones that spend wisely, who are running MLS these days. New York City FC, please take note.
Mendola: Neither? If I had to pick one, it’s bad, but that’s because we’re still trying to draw the gawker/newbie/casual viewer to the league.
Lynch: I think it’s good to show there is more parity in MLS, as the league is not just dominated by markets that have a greater chance of attracting high-priced designated players. Despite being a smaller market, Portland has one of the top fanbases in all of MLS, and they definitely deserve to see their team in the final.
Bonn: Depends on what you think is “good” for the league. It’s always good for competitive balance and long-term league and franchise health to have parity across the competition no matter the market. But on a strictly financial sense, the finals will lack national appeal and flat out won’t generate the revenue it would have with a bigger market. This debate is the same across any professional sport, but here it’s amplified with MLS still climbing uphill in the United States to the level of the more prevalent sports’ championship games/series.

[ MORE: Matchup by matchup, picking the favorite in MLS Cup 2015 ]

3. Who has the edge, if any, in the technical area — Gregg Berhalter or Caleb Porter?

JPW: Right now, I have to say Porter. He is fired up, has his team thirsty for success and although Berhalter may be the better tactician, especially defensively, Porter’s men are on a mission. He needed this run to MLS Cup more and if the former Akron coach can win it all, that will set him up to stay in PDX for quite some time.
Edwards: I’m a huge Berhalter fan and think he needs to be in the discussion to replace Jurgen Klinsmann after 2018, but for the purposes of this game, I have to go with Porter. Not only does he have more (and better) options at his disposal on the bench, but he’s shown in recent weeks that he knows which button to push at exactly the right time. For instance, bringing on an attacker in stoppage time while up a goal, and that attacker, Lucas Melano, scores.
Mendola: Push.
Lynch: I think the slight edge goes to Porter. You feel he wants to prove the critics wrong almost more than his players do, as an MLS Cup title would vindicate his position as a top coach in the league.
Bonn: The experience factor is a complete wash. The paths to the finals are actually quite similar. Having joined their respective teams in 2013, both had a hand in their club’s improvement this offseason. Porter had to navigate lower lows this season, but ultimately, they come into this on an even keel.

[ MORE: What winning a championship would mean for Portland ]

4. What’s the biggest key to Crew SC winning MLS Cup 2015?

JPW: Don’t lose sight of what got them there. In front of a home crowd the temptation may be to go out and entertain, do things they aren’t used to and go for the win from the first whistle. We’ve see Columbus grind out 1-0 and 2-1 wins all season and they must stay tight at the back with Portland’s forwards possessing plenty of quality – and in red-hot form – to punish any mistakes. Oh, and they have to get crosses in the box for Kei Kamara to finish.
Edwards: Overload and overwhelm Diego Chara, the lone defensive midfielder for Portland. If they can do that, quality chances — and eventually goals — will come.
Mendola: Kei Kamara getting and finishing his chances against a Timbers back line that, in my opinion, has overachieved in recent months.
Lynch: It’s the easy answer, but you have to go with Kei Kamara. He was one of the top scorers in MLS throughout the year, and he’s going to be the go-to guy for Columbus when a big goal is needed.
Bonn: Put a lid on the Timbers. Portland’s electrifying but inconsistent attack is riding high here in the playoffs, and the Columbus defense is the weak point of their team. Defend, and Columbus will win a scrappy battle 10 times out of 10. They can still win a shootout, but if they concede 1 goal or less, mark me down for the Crew.

[ MORE: Three advantages that make Crew SC favorites ]

5. What’s the biggest key to the Timbers winning MLS Cup 2015?

JPW: Keep it rolling. It’s important that they also stay tight and don’t chase things but we’ve seen them hit teams on the counter with their pace and if they can get Darlington Nagbe on the ball as much as possible, he will dictate the tempo of this game. Nagbe’s battle with Will Trapp in the engine room is one I’m really looking forward to.
Edwards: Be the aggressors. Crew SC thrive on taking the game to the opposition. Plus, if the Timbers let their full backs and wingers get pinned deep inside their own half defensively, it’s goodnight for them.
Mendola: Adam Kwarasey. I expect Columbus to have at least 2-3 early spans of dominance.
Lynch: Stay confident. From barely surviving in the first round to knocking out the top seed in the West, Portland has to feel like they can beat anyone right now. As long as they stick to the gameplan and use their speed to attack, they’ll have a good shot.
Bonn: Conversely to Crew SC, the Timbers need to possess the ball and pummel the Columbus back line. That dangerous attack will put the ball in the back of the net if they create enough chances.  Since bombing Sporting KC but still losing 1-0 on October 3, they have been shut out once. One time. In a 0-0 draw with Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs, eventually winning the reverse fixture 2-0. This team doesn’t get shut out.

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6. Prediction time: who wins MLS Cup 2015, and what’s the score?

JPW: Ah, man, this is tough. I’m going with Columbus, 2-1. I think Portland will come flying out of the traps but the Crew’s defense will hold strong and Kamara will probably get the winner the way his season has gone.
Edwards: Crew SC, 3-1.
Mendola: Columbus, 2-0.
Lynch: I’m going to have to go with Columbus, 3-1. I think it will be a real close game with both teams getting chances, but the home crowd helps will the Crew ahead 2-1. Kei Kamara scores the final goal of the season in stoppage time when Portland has everyone pressing forward.
Bonn: Remember way back when I said Portland doesn’t get shut out? 2-0, Columbus. Book it.