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.

In-form striker Duvan Zapata injured on international duty

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This international break has been particularly brutal to clubs who have seen a host of key players go down with injuries, and there’s still a few days of matches remaining.

The latest player to succumb to injury is Atalanta striker Duvan Zapata who returned from Colombia duty with an adductor strain and will miss at least three weeks, according to Sky Sports Italia (via FootballItalia). Zapata went down 23 minutes into Colombia’s 0-0 friendly draw with Chile on Friday and was sent back to Italy for tests at his club.

Those tests have reportedly confirmed the initial fears. The loss of Zapata is a massive one for Atalanta, as the 28-year-old has been steadily building for years and is having a breakout start to this campaign, scoring six Serie A goals in seven matches plus one more in Champions League play, currently on a run of four consecutive games with a goal across all competitions. With Zapata’s help, Atalanta sits third in the Serie A table, having bagged the most goals of any team with 18 through seven games.

Zapata becomes the latest high-profile injury from this international break, joining Colombia teammate Alexis Sanchez who went down late in the same match and is reportedly out until 2020 with a serious ankle injury. Chelsea has been hit the hardest, with Andreas Christensen, Mateo Kovacic, and Reese James all pulling up while N’Golo Kante was injured in France warmups but he is expected to be fit for the weekend. Luka Modric may miss time after going down in a Euro qualifier against Wales, while Gareth Bale also picked up a knock in that match. Neymar went down in Brazil’s match against against Nigeria, which forced manager Tite to explain his reasoning for the selection in a friendly. Sergio Aguero is apparently struggling to train with Argentina thanks to a mystery injury confirmed by Lionel Scaloni. Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos withdrew from Spain training earlier in the week with “hamstring overload.” Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson left USMNT camp with a hamstring problem with the MLS playoffs on the horizon.

Ex-England midfielder Gascoigne on trial for sexual assault

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LONDON (AP) — A prosecutor has alleged that former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne sexually assaulted a woman on a train by “forcibly and sloppily” planting an unwanted kiss on her lips.

Prosecutor William Mousley’s comments Monday came as Gascoigne, who has struggled with alcohol and mental-health problems, went on trial at Teesside Crown Court charged with sexual assault of the female passenger.

Mousley said the former England star “put his hands on her cheeks and kissed her forcibly and sloppily on the lips.”

The 52-year-old Gascoigne denies the charge.

The alleged victim has told the court that she froze when the man, who appeared drunk, kissed her in August 2018. She says she did not realize it was Gascoigne until after the alleged incident.

USMNT looks to build with Nations League visit to Canada

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The United States has faced much criticism since failing to miss out on the World Cup two years ago. If Gregg Berhalter is to silence the naysayers, he must use the Nations League as a building block for sustained success with a view towards 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Step 1 was completed Friday with a 7-0 demolition of lowly Cuba, and Step 2 comes Tuesday evening as the USMNT heads to Toronto to meet Canada at BMO Field, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

[ MORE: An in-depth look at Canada ]

The United States did the job at hand, soundly beating a far inferior opponent, allowing the squad to move forward quickly and emphatically. There is plenty more to prove, but the engine is revved and the gas pedal pressed. Still, Berhalter and company must remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and even the slightest slip in Nations League play will open the floodgates of criticism.

Seeing the bigger picture

The biggest thing for the USMNT to piece together in the Nations League is a sustained run of success that builds not just positive feelings but true momentum born by consistency. It will be fascinating to see the team chosen by Gregg Berhalter as he looks to put together consistent starting lineups that help build not just victories on the scoresheet but also chemistry between players who have a legitimate chance of seeing future lineups in more high leverage matches.

Against Cuba, positive performances can lend themselves to more opportunities down the line, but Berhalter must also be realistic about who has a chance to be contributors not just against the minnows of CONCACAF but also against teams the United States has aspirations of competing with. Against Cuba, Jordan Morris continued his revival as a winger, and he should be given more opportunities to build a relationship with Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic up front. Jackson Yueill is another player who can earn his way into long-term contention, but it remains true that Michael Bradley is still the team’s best option at holding midfielder and requires minutes with the other consistent starters (although it would be interesting to see if the two can play together coherently). Reggie Cannon played well at right-back but incumbent DeAndre Yedlin deserves the chance to prove he’s still the correct choice after returning from a long injury layoff.

A view towards the future must be in the back of Berhalter’s mind, not just looking to achieve results but also achieve results with the right players. Meshing the correct squad now will unquestionably pay dividends down the road as the United States hopes to turn around recent negative results against teams like Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Italy, and Colombia which fans aspire to be competitive against. With the start of World Cup qualification less than a calendar year away, the time is now to end the wild experimentation and begin dividing up the precious minutes between players who are considered legitimate possibilities for the potential 2022 squad.

18-year-old Alphonso Davies represents a youth movement with the Canadian national team that gives fans hope for the future (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Switching gears to Canada

Canada will no doubt present a tougher test than Cuba, but the United States will still be expected to emerge victorious, and anything less will represent yet another two steps back after one step forward.

The northern neighbors have high aspirations, hoping to challenge for World Cup qualification. Head coach John Herdman said in the run-up to Tuesday’s match that the United States may be a rival, but they’re also “standing in the way” of the ultimate goal, confident speech ahead of such a difficult test. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye took it a step further, saying his play with the Canadian national team over the next few years “is going to help shape the foundation of how Canada is going to be in the next 10 years.”

Canada has a crop of young talent with Kaye joined by 18-year-old Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies and 19-year-old Gent youth product Jonathan David.

Still, they have not defeated the United States in their last 17 tries, dating back to 1985. Their last match was a measly 1-0 victory over the same Cuba squad that was obliterated by the US, forced to play 35 minutes a man down after Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry was sent off. Canada still managed to hold a whopping 81% possession in that match, but worked just a single shot on target, which resulted in Davies’ 9th minute opener. They will need to be both more disciplined and more dangerous if they wish to pull off the upset in Toronto.

Projected lineup

— Steffan —

— Yedlin — Long — Ream — Lovitz —

— McKennie — Bradley — Roldan —

— Morris — Sargent — Pulisic —

Brad Guzan started the Cuba match in goal, but Zack Steffan is the true long-term option here and it would be natural to see him return to the lineup against the tougher opponent. Gregg Berhalter loves Aaron Long and his return could also be expected. As stated above, Bradley is a contentious selection among many fans but his presence calms the midfield, and he delivers a long ball forward like nobody else on the roster. The front three played exceptionally well against Cuba and it would be questionable to see anyone but those players start again with Jozy Altidore injured.

Prediction

The United States will no doubt face a tougher challenge, and the young attacking talent will test the in-flux back line. Yedlin at right-back will have the toughest test matching up with Davies defensively which could force him back more than Berhalter wants. It will be imperative for the midfield trio to establish control of the central areas and work forward from there. It can be expected that the United States will control the tempo, and if they stay calm, cool, and collected when Canada counters, they should come away with a nervy 2-1 victory.

Lyon hires Rudi Garcia as new manager

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Olympique Lyonnais has announced they have hired Rudi Garcia as manager, replacing the fired Sylvinho.

Lyon has struggled mightily to start the Ligue 1 season, winning just two of its first nine league games and sitting 14th in the table with nine points. Sylvinho, who was only hired at the end of May, was let go last week.

Garcia has formerly taken charge of Roma, Lille, and St. Etienne, and most recently managed Lyon rivals Marseille for three seasons before departing this summer. He left with Marseille having failed to claim a Champions League place amid the Ligue 1 top three.

“I chose Rudi Garcia because he is a fighter who, like us, has the ambition to win titles and succeed on the European stage,” said Lyon sporting director Juninho. The Brazilian had chosen his countrymate Sylvinho this summer, but made a change just nine matches into the season with the club winning its first two matches of the season and failing to win since. They have lost three of the last four, with all three defeats coming via a 1-0 scoreline. They have scored just five goals in the seven-match winless run, shutout on four different occasions.

The 55-year-old Frenchman will have plenty of proving to do to Lyon fans. Coming straight over from a direct rival, . Fans were outspoken about their cautious feelings, as the introductory tweet was ratio’d by those expressing a distaste for the hire.

“He is an experienced coach who has already won trophies,” added Juninho.“Wherever he has been, he has had above-average performances and has always managed to make the most of what he had at his disposal.”

Garcia’s first match in charge will be a home league match this weekend against Dijon, followed by a Europa League visit to Benfica.