Early goals, toothless Crew SC send Timbers to MLS Cup coronation

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From being inches — literally, on not one, but two posts, on the same kick of the ball — away from elimination in the first round of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs more than a month ago, to lifting the Philip F. Anschutz trophy at midfield of MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, the 2015 postseason was one Portland Timbers fans won’t soon remember forget.

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Sunday’s triumph over Columbus Crew SC in the 2015 MLS Cup final was yet another example of a crazy, unpredictable title-decider, in that it went completely against everything we thought we could forecast for this game. That tends to happen, though, when less than 30 seconds are on the clock and one team has already scored, doesn’t it?

Timbers quickest out of the blocks

Which is where we’ll begin our anlysis tonight. Portland weren’t just quickest out of the starting blocks on Sunday; they were the quickest team on the scoreboard in MLS Cup’s 20-year history. Diego Valeri’s goal 27 seconds into Sunday’s final was a sucker-punch to the proverbial jaw of Crew SC. Such a confident team all season, free-flowing and wide open with the belief that a goal was always just around the corner, Crew SC were shell-shocked and never really recovered from the early blow. They conceded the eventual winner six minutes later.

Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter:

“I think you could see a little bit of nerves. Steve [Clark] gets hundreds of balls, thousands of balls played to him during the course of the season and he rarely makes a mistake like that and you have to live with it. We support him and mistakes are part of the game. The start wasn’t good, the start was certainly not good. What I am pleased about is that we didn’t give up.

In fairness to Portland, the early goal won’t have changed all that much about Crew SC’s gameplan — they wanted to play quickly and aggressively beforehand, so nothing debilitating there — but it did allow the Timbers to defend with numbers, rather than to engage the Black and Gold in a counter-attacking track meet.

[ FULL RECAP: Timbers top Crew SC to take home first MLS Cup ]

They helped Diego Chara — a whole lot

My biggest worry for Portland ahead of the game was that Chara would be but a lone man constantly contending with a quartet of dangerous attackers, and would eventually succumb through no real fault of his own. As a knock-on effect of the early goal, those defensive numbers aided Chara more than anyone else in Green and Gold. Darlington Nagbe (and Valeri, to a degree) sagged deeper and deeper into midfield and forced Federico Higuain into a dismal performance when his side needed him at his most sublime.

Rodney Wallace and Lucas Melano provided serious cover for the full backs, Jorge Villafana, who was absolutely immense, and Alvas Powell. In the end, it was a full-team defensive effort from Portland, when the threat of them being stretched wide and made to chase the game seemed so real prior to kickoff. Crew SC, a side that led MLS in shots on target during the regular season (5.3 per game) managed just one in the biggest game of the season. Set pieces, of which there were alarmingly few for Crew SC, also failed them on Sunday when they had been such a weapon all season long.

[ MORE: PST staff predicts MLS Cup 2015 — how’d we do? ]

Timbers’ defensive shape picture-perfect

My other gigantic worry for Portland was that center backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell, neither of whom are particularly quick or athletic, would be torched when dragged out into open space to defend wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, both of whom were exceptionally poor by their standards and subbed off in the second half. The entire “why” for that duo, which combined for 18 goals and 18 assists during the regular season, being so poor was the defensive shape of the Timbers’ backline.

Villafana and Powell rarely ventured forward — thanks again, early goals! — and put in their best defensive shifts of the season. That meant Borchers and Ridgewell, 34 and 31 respectively, weren’t rushing out into space to emergency-defend against Finlay and Meram. Those two largely nullified, Kei Kamara, who scored 22 times during the regular season and three more times in the playoffs before Sunday, and he was feeding on scraps. Kamara managed just one shot all night — his goal — on 31 total touches over 90 minutes.