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.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

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.

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

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.

Premier League awards: End-of-season finalists announced

Premier League awards
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The Premier League announced its end-of-season awards finalists in four categories on Friday, with voting set to remain open through 1 pm ET on Monday, Aug. 10.

[ MORE: League One, League Two clubs vote to introduce salary cap ]

Here’s a look at the finalists for the four key awards, and a prediction of who will take home each one…

Premier League Player of the Season – VOTE HERE

Finalists: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Kevin De Bruyne (Man City), Jordan Henderson (Liveprool), Danny Ings (Southampton), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Nick Pope (Burnley), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)

Who will win? First things first, Footballer of the Year — which was won by Henderson, according to the Football Writers’ Association — and Player of the Season are very different awards. FotY awards have typically gone to the individual deemed most important to the title-winning team; PotS generally goes to the most outstanding individual performer. Thus, De Bruyne should receive somewhere between 96 and 98 percent of the vote. The Belgian’s 20 assists tied the PL record (Thierry Henry, 2002-03) and he chipped in with another baker’s dozen goals. No one else’s numbers even approach that level of absurdity, so let’s just pause for a moment and consider how far City would have finished the season behind Liverpool without De Bruyne going superhuman.

[ MORE: Reports: Arsenal nearing agreement on new Aubameyang contract ]

Premier League Young Player of the Season – VOTE HERE

Finalists: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Mason Greenwood (Man United), Dean Henderson (Sheffield United), Anthony Martial (Man United), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Marcus Rashford (Man United)

Who will win? It goes without saying the Pulisic takes this award for the post-Project Restart period of the season, but did he do enough over the course of the entire season to edge out, say, Alexander-Arnold, who was a genuine difference maker for not only the league champions, but also one of the most dominant sides in PL history? Probably not. Plus, how rare is it that a defender — let alone a full back — gets his due credit when the awards are handed out? It takes a truly special player to put forth a truly special season to earn that kind of recognition as a full back, and Alexander-Arnold checked both of those boxes in 2019-20.

[ MORE: Report: Lille agree record fee for Canadian star Jonathan David ]

Premier League Manager of the Season – VOTE HERE

Finalists: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Brendan Rodgers (Leicester City), Chris Wilder (Sheffield United)

Who will win? Through 30 games played, Sheffield United sat seventh in the table and were just two points out of fifth place — at the time, thought to be a Champions League place with Man City’s impending, but since-lifted, European ban — which probably made Chris Wilder the slight favorite for Manager of the Season. Unfortunately, the Blades lost four of their final eight games and slipped to ninth — still a remarkable first season in the PL, but just far enough outside of Europe — and many, many months ago — that most voters will likely forget their brilliant start to the season. Frank Lampard will likely receive a fair share of the vote given Chelsea’s transfer ban, the exceedingly youthful nature of the Chelsea squad and qualifying for Champions League — and rightly so — but there remains one likely, and perhaps runaway, winner: Klopp. Call it a “career achievement” award if you must, but anyone who considers the state of Liverpool when Klopp took over in 2015, and compares that to where they are now, will vote for Klopp in the blink of an eye.

[ MORE: Champions League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions ]

Premier League Goal of the Season – VOTE HEREWATCH HERE

Finalists: Harvey Barnes (Leicester City), Moussa Djenepo (Southampton), Matthew Longstaff (Newcastle United), Kevin De Bruyne no. 1, v. Newcastle (Man City), Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Brighton & Hove Albion), Matej Vydra (Burnley), Bruno Fernandes (Man United), Kevin De Bruyne no. 2, v. Norwich City (Man City)

Hit the link above and watch all the goals, then let’s have a debate in the comments.

Who will win? Given his otherworldly popularity back home in South Korea, it’s easy to see the votes flooding in for Son, whose solo goal against Burnley was spectacular from the first yard all the way to the 75th. That’s the easy and obvious answer, but if you’re looking for something of a dark-horse candidate, De Bruyne’s blast against Newcastle, due to not only the chest control but also the height at which he strikes the ball and bangs it off the underside of the crossbar, is the likely first runner-up.

League One, League Two clubs vote to introduce salary cap

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Clubs in League One and League Two have voted to introduce a salary cap, “effectively immediately.”

[ MORE: Reports: Arsenal nearing agreement on new Aubameyang contract ]

Under the agreed proposal, clubs in England’s third tier, League One, will be allowed to spend up to $3.25 million (£2.5 million) per season on player salaries, while League Two sides will be limited at $2 million (£1.5 million).

The salary cap is, at least in theory, expected to create greater sustainability for lower-division clubs after a number of sides recently relegated from the Premier League and/or the Championship have endured great financial hardship and, in some cases, received hefty punishments for failing to maintain certain financial standards.

According to Sky Sports, discussions about a potential salary cap began back in March, prior to the shutdown, and canceling of the remainder, of the League One and League Two seasons due to COVID-19.

When calculating total salary spending, the salary cap will include not only weekly wages paid to players, but also bonuses, agent fees and image rights, among other mechanisms by which clubs have spent and — again, in far too many cases — lost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in recent years.

Per the English Football League, “any contract entered into on or prior to today’s vote will be capped at an agreed divisional average until that contract expires,” meaning clubs will not be forced to immediately shed contracts in order to comply with the newly implemented rule.

[ MORE: Report: Lille agree record fee for Canadian star Jonathan David ]

From the EFL’s statement, which can be read in full here, released shortly after the vote:

“The term ‘salary cap’ is an emotive one, creating the impression of a restrictive measure but we are clear in our view that this is neither the objective nor the likely effect of these changes to EFL Regulations. The financial impact of COVID-19 will be profound for EFL Clubs and today’s vote will help ensure Clubs cannot extend themselves to the point that could cause financial instability.

“Over the last two weeks the discussions amongst Clubs in both Leagues One and Two have been healthy and constructive, allowing us to reach a clear consensus today and I am pleased that the Clubs have determined to adopt the new approach. We will now work with all Clubs, the PFA and, where appropriate, other stakeholders to implement the new rules and continue our efforts to bring long-term sustainability to the EFL.

MLS is Back: Orlando City advances to final on Nani brace (video)

MLS is Back
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) Nani scored a pair of first-half goals and Orlando City advanced to the MLS is Back tournament title match with a 3-1 victory over Minnesota United on Thursday night.

[ MORE: Report: Lille agree record fee for Canadian star Jonathan David ]

Orlando will play the Portland Timbers, who defeated the Philadelphia Union 2-1 in the other semifinal on Wednesday night, in the championship game on Tuesday.

Mason Toye pulled Minnesota within 2-1 with his first goal of the season in the 83rd minute, but the Lions withstood United’s attack down the stretch before Benji Michel’s goal late in stoppage time for the final margin.

“It was very satisfying for us because we worked the whole week just working as a team, making sure all the pieces were put together,” Michel said. “For us to be able to get the win was very, very good for us.”

Minnesota’s Chase Gasper had an early attempted that was pushed over the goal by Pedro Gallese. On the other end, Tesho Akindele’s chance off a cross from Ruan just barely sailed over the crossbar.

Nani gave Orlando the lead in the 36th minute, taking a long ball from Robin Jansson and shaking off defender Hassani Dotson before beating Minnesota goalkeeper Tyler Miller.

Some seven minutes later, the Portuguese winger who played for Manchester United made it 2-0 with a goal from distance.

[ MORE: Reports: Arsenal nearing agreement on new Aubameyang contract ]

There was some shoving between the two teams in the 73rd minute when Junior Urso’s foul resulted in a Minnesota free kick. Gallese came up big for the Lions, leaping to stop Raheem Edwards’ attempt.

“I thought we rushed everything,” Minnesota coach Adrian Heath said. “After the first 15 minutes, where we started the game really well, we needed an extra pass in the final third and we rushed it, we crossed it when there wasn’t anyone in the box. We made a lot of wrong choices in the final third tonight and that’s probably cost us dearly, I think.”

Heath was coach of Orlando City for four seasons before the team joined Major League Soccer in 2015. Heath led the Lions until July 2016, when he was fired.

Heath had not lost against his former club. The Lions are now led by Pareja.

Orlando finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last season with just nine wins.

“We have worked hard, and it has been, so far, difficult times for us. But the players just put all the excuses away, and then just kept going and going,” Pareja said. “And I think they’re happy. They’re playing with confidence and they accept each other and they understand this is day-by day. The guys who came from different countries, different clubs. They help us as well to gel.”

[ MORE: Champions League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions ]

Minnesota’s Romain Metanire and Kevin Molino both had hamstring injuries and were on the bench to start the game. United centerback Ike Opara – the reigning MLS Defender of the Year – did not join the team in Orlando because of a pre-existing condition.

Orlando’s Chris Mueller, whose arm in a sling after the team advanced on penalties following a scoreless draw against LAFC in the quarterfinals, was in the starting lineup.

Lions striker Dom Dwyer had surgery last week on his left knee as is expected to be out for up to six months.

The monthlong World Cup-style tournament has been played without fans at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World. Players have been sequestered at a pair of Disney resorts.

Champions League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

Champions League odds
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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League resume this week and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City and Chelsea still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League Round of 16 second legs will take place before mini tournaments begin.

Man City lead Real Madrid 2-1 from their first leg in Spain, while Chelsea trail Bayern 3-0 as they head to Germany for the return game. Man United are all but in the quarterfinals, while Wolves are favored to make the Europa quarters too.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Round of 16 at home venues; Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Round of 16 (August 7-8)
Friday, August 7: Manchester City 1-1 Real Madrid (2-1)
Friday, August 7: Juventus 2-1 Lyon (0-1)
Saturday, August 8: Barcelona 3-1 Napoli (1-1)
Saturday, August 8: Bayern Munich 2-1 Chelsea (3-0)


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Round of 16 (August 5-6)
Copenhagen 1-2 Istanbul Basaksehir
Wolves 2-0 Olympiakos
Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Rangers
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-3 Wolfsburg
Basel 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Manchester United 3-1 LASK
Inter Milan 3-0 Getafe
Sevilla 1-3 Roma


Champions League betting odds

Round of 16 (August 7-8)
(-139) Manchester City v. Real Madrid (+320). Tie: +340
(-230) Juventus v. Lyon (+650). Tie: +340
(-150) Barcelona v. Napoli (+400). Tie: +300
(-250) Bayern Munich v. Chelsea (+650). Tie: +410

Quarterfinals (August 12-13)
(+200) Atalanta v. Paris Saint-Germain (+120). Tie: +285
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+133). Tie: 220

Outright winner
Manchester City (+350)
Bayern Munich (+365)
Paris Saint-Germain (+450)
Atletico Madrid (+700)
Atalanta (+950)
Barcelona (+1100)
RB Leipzig (+1500)
Juventus (+1700)


Europa League betting odds

Round of 16 (August 5-6)
(+155) Copenhagen v. Istanbul Basaksehir (+180). Tie: +235
(-134) Wolves v. Olympiakos (+390). Tie: +260
(-162) Bayer Leverkusen v. Rangers (+410). Tie: +310
(+135) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Wolfsburg (+185). Tie: +265
(+155) Basel v. Eintracht Frankfurt (+155). Tie: +275
(-455) Manchester United v. LASK (+1200). Tie: +550
(-143) Inter Milan v. Getafe (+385). Tie: +285
(+110) Sevilla v. Roma (+270). Tie: +230

Outright winner
Manchester United (+160)
Inter Milan (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+700)
Wolves (+800)
Sevilla (+900)