Harrison Afful

AP Photo/Nick Wass

Columbus beats DC in MLS Cup Playoffs thriller

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Penalty prodigy Zack Steffen stopped two penalty kicks to help lead Columbus past DC United at Audi Field on Thursday in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The sides were level 1-1 after 90 minutes, and 2-2 through 120. Columbus scored thrice to DC’s two goals in PKs.

Steffen stopped Wayne Rooney‘s opening attempt of penalty kicks, but Bill Hamid stymied Gyasi Zardes’ third round bid.

Steffen then stopped Luciano Acosta, but the ball bobbled on Patrick Mullins’ chance to win it for the Crew.

So it came down to DeLeon to tie it, and he sent it way over the bar.

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Federico Higuain bagged a brace for Columbus, while Nick DeLeon and Frederic Brillant scored for the Black and Red.

Columbus/DC moves on to face the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals, a rematch of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals.

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DC hit the scoreboard first thanks to a rare error from Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

The USMNT No. 1 backstop couldn’t hold onto a rising cross, which spilled out of his hands for Brillant to tap into the goal.

DC’s lead didn’t last long, thanks to 34-year-old Higuain (You thought he was older, didn’t you?)

Like Brillant, the Argentine was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some rough play from the opposition.

Columbus had a few very good chances to retake the lead.

Justin Meram hit a volley over the goal, and Bill Hamid thwarted Pedro Santos’ ambitious distance effort with a flying save in the 85th.

Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta then combined atop the 18, but Steffen made a fine save of his own to force extra time.

It didn’t take long for the visitors to get their first lead of the night, with Higuain heading a pinpoint cross from Afful inside the far post.

Yet that wasn’t it!

A foul far from goal saw Rooney presiding over a deep free kick. He sent it to the back post, it was headed to the top of the 18 by Gyasi Zardes, and De Leon punched it through traffic and inside the near post with a dynamic shot.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Miami FC.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

MLS Team of the Playoffs — Stars of MLS Cup Playoffs 2015

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That’s it. It’s all over. MLS Cup 2015 was won by the Portland Timbers on Sunday, bringing to end the 2015 Major League Soccer season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Not without one final MLS Team of the Week Playoffs, though. Unsurprisingly, this year’s Team of the Playoffs is heavy on players from the Timbers and Columbus Crew SC, Sunday’s finalists, with a few conference semifinalists sprinkled throughout.

[ MORE: Timbers top Crew SC to lift first MLS Cup trophy ]

Kei Kamara‘s four goals scored during the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs were twice as many as any other player — one of which was Portland’s Fanendo Adi. Diego Valeri bagged four assists in five games played, which is mighty impressive until you read on and realize Mauro Diaz hit the same mark in just four games played. And then there was the two-way midfield work of Diego Chara, whose work rate was otherworldly en route to Portland’s first MLS title. Throw in defenders Nat Borchers and Jorge Villafana, and it becomes clear just why Portland were crowned champions.

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 — MLS Cup playoffs

Goalkeeper: Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)

MLS Goalkeeper

Defenders: Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew SC), Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Jorge Villafana (Portland Timbers)

MLS Defenders

Midfielders: Diego Chara (Portland Timbers), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas), Andreas Ivanschitz (Seattle Sounders)

MLS Midfielders

Forwards: Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew SC), Fanendo Adi (Portland Timbers)

MLS Forwards

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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