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.

[ 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.

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

Champions League odds
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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed 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 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. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

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: 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

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
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Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
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Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.