Alvas Powell

Crew SC (probably) favorites for MLS Cup 2015 — but why?

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We are now less than 68 hours away from the kickoff of Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 (4 p.m. ET) between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers at MAPRFE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Here at PST, we’ve already delved into just what it would mean if the Timbers are crowned 2015 champions in their first MLS Cup appearance, so now it’s time to take a look at their opponents, and how Crew SC, who are after MLS Cup no. 2, will go about attacking one of the league’s stingiest defenses (39 goals conceded in 34 games – third-fewest).

1. Home-field advantage — it matters in MLS Cup

Since MLS opted to play MLS Cup at non-neutral sites in 2012 (the 2011 final was played at a pre-determined site which also ended up being an LA Galaxy home game), home teams are 3-0 (4-0 counting LA in 2011). LA won three times at home (2011, 2012 and 2014), while Sporting Kansas City were crowned 2014 champs on their home field.

The two sides’ lone meeting of 2015 ended a 2-1 victory for the Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium on Sept. 26.

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

2. The best full back duo in the league

Full backs matter in the modern game — they matter a lot. As we’ve gotten away from the days of 4-4-2, which provided lots of additional defensive cover to full backs through wide midfielders sitting much deeper, the two-way demands placed upon full backs have skyrocketed. Gregg Berhalter knows this well, which is why he made a point to sign a pair of do-everything fullbacks inside his first two seasons in charge — left back Waylon Francis (winter of 2013) and right back Harrison Afful (summer of 2015) to serve as massive building blocks for Crew SC.

Afful arrived only in August, yet he’s established himself as the best right back in MLS; opposite him, Francis is in the same conversation at left back; together, they are far and away the best duo. (Coincidentally, Portland’s Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell might just be no. 2.) As discussed this week on a podcast I host, the biggest impact Crew SC’s full backs will have during Sunday’s final will be exhibited in the amount of time Timbers wingers Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla spend tracking back into their own half to defend, which will ultimately see Fanendo Adi stranded on an island up top, trying to hold the ball up against three and four defenders again and again. Oh, and they’re also really solid defensively, often times freeing wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram to stay well up the field with even more freedom to attack.

[ MORE: Nemeth wins Goal of the Year; Kwarasey win save award ]

3. Ability to overload and overwhelm in midfield

There’s probably no team in MLS that regularly overwhelms opponents by overloading one side, or one player, with the success of Crew SC. Take, for instance, Diego Chara in Sunday’s showdown — playing as the (presumed) lone defensive midfielder, he’ll be simultaneously responsible for playmaker Federico Higuain; center forward Kei Kamara, when he drops into midfield; and wingers Finlay and Meram when they tuck inside, as they’ll look to do every time the Black and Gold are in full flow.

Throw in the fact that Villafana and Powell are likely to need help in regular two-on-one situations with overlapping full backs, and Chara’s plate is going to be extra full on Sunday. It also means center backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell will be defending hugely athletically superior players in lots of space, which is far from ideal. The obvious solution is to play one of Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury next to Chara to ease the Colombian’s burden, but would mean Darlington Nagbe is shunted back out to the wing, where he proved largely ineffective for nearly five full seasons. New to his quasi-box-to-box central midfield role, Nagbe’s the one who has to step up and hang out in Higuain’s back pocket all game long for the Timbers to have a chance of slowing down a vicious Crew SC attack.

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

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

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Mid-season MLS awards: Best XI of 2015 (so far)

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Throughout the 2015 Major League Soccer season, every week we’ve taken a look back at the previous round of league games and pieced together our very own Team of the Week. Today, given that we’re near the halfway point of the season (depending on which team you use as a barometer), we’ll compile all of those previous Teams of the Week to form an MLS Best XI squad, so far.

[ RELATED: 2015 MLS MVP (so far)All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Columbus Crew SC’s Kei Kamara leads the league in scoring (12 goals) at the halfway point, while teammate Ethan Finlay leads the league in assists (10). Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco is tied for second in goals and assists combined (15).

The full mid-season MLS Best XI is as follows:

Goalkeeper: David Ousted (Vancouver Whitecaps)

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Defenders: Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Alvas Powell (Portland Timber), Kemar Lawrence (New York Red Bulls)

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Midfielders: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Fabian Castillo (FC Dallas), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew SC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City)

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Forwards: Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew SC), Octavio Rivero (Vancouver Whitecaps)

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MLS Team of the Week — Stars of Week 10

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Week 10 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is in the books, and it’s safe to say the last three days of MLS action was one of the best in recent memory. In 10 games played between Friday and Sunday, just one team — the Philadelphia Union — failed to score a goal.

Unsurprisingly, you’ll find not a single Union player on this week’s MLS Team of the Week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Week 10 MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Instead, you will find the likes of Kei Kamara and Bradley Wright-Phillips — scorers of braces — as well as Mauro Diaz and Pedro Morales — creators of goals a plenty. There’s also Nick Rimando, 93rd-minute-penalty-saving extraordinaire, because how could you not give that guy the nod?

Thoughts? Questions? Agreements? Disagreements? (Of course not.) Leave them in the comments section, as always. I’m not afraid to defend my picks.

[ MORE: 2015 MLS Team of the Week archive ]

MLS Team of the Week — Week 10

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

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Defenders: Emanuel Pogatetz (Columbus Crew SC), Kemar Lawrence (New York Red Bulls), Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers), Alvas Powell (Portland Timbers)

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Midfielders: Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas), Pedro Morales (Vancouver Whitecaps), Matias Laba (Vancouver Whitecaps)

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Forwards: Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew SC), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls), Giles Barnes (Houston Dynamo)

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MLS Team of the Week — Stars of Week 9

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Week 9 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is in the books, and while the overall scoring was down considerably from that of Week 8 (remember this ridiculousness?), the scoring of MLS’s biggest stars was up and accounted for a high percentage of the weekend’s goals.

That, of course, makes this week’s MLS Team of the Week a who’s who of MLS stars.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Week 8 MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Matt Besler returned to his pre-2014 World Cup form to help Sporting Kansas City shutout the Chicago Fire, while Alvas Powell made nine tackles in helping the Portland Timbers secure a 0-0 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Giovinco was busy putting on a show all his own in Toronto FC’s 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union. Mauro Diaz was kind enough to remind us that, when healthy, he’s scary good and, along with 2015 MLS MVP-to-be Fabian Castillo, make FC Dallas a frightening opponent for any team. Then there were the goalscoring and dazzling shenanigans that Obafemi Martins was up to against New York City FC.

[ MORE: 2015 MLS Team of the Week archive ]

MLS Team of the Week — Week 9

Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

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Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Damien Perquis (Toronto FC), Alvas Powell (Portland Timbers)

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Midfielders: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls)

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Forwards: Fabian Castillo (FC Dallas), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders), Fabian Espindola (D.C. United)

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