Major League Soccer will crown their 20th champion today, as Columbus Crew SC hosts the Portland Timbers in the 2015 MLS Cup final. For the Crew, the opportunity to add a second star on home soil took a while to get going. Columbus has stuck consistently with a style of play and a very consistent starting eleven, but it took most of the season before the kinks were consistently worked out. Portland, meanwhile, has been through numerous phases and spent some time with their playoff place in doubt before a formation change and a shift to a very attacking mentality unlocked their potential.
Columbus - 4231: Clark; Afful, Parkhurst, Sauro, Francis; Trapp, Tchani; Finlay, Higuain, Meram; Kamara/McInerney/Cedrick
Portland - 433: Kwarasey; Powell, Borchers, Ridgewell, Villafana; Nagbe, Chara, Valeri; Asprilla/Melano, Adi, Wallace
Key player for Columbus: Federico Higuain
In terms of numbes, Pipa's importance in Columbus has been reduced in Gregg Berhalter's system. He still put up 8 goals and 9 assists, but for the Crew's high-scoring attack players like Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay got more attention this season.
However, Higuain's role within Berhalter's system has as much to do with movement as anything else. Higuain doesn't stay in the center and demand the ball like most MLS #10s. He roams around - nearly sideline to sideline and sometimes as deep as anyone in the Columbus midfield - looking for seams while also trying to force defenses to reorganize to deal with where he's decided to play in a given moment. He offers a huge mental challenge to any team's defensive structure.
On paper, the Timbers might be particularly susceptible in this department. Their 433 features Diego Chara as a lone defensive midfielder, and that means they'll have to pick their poison. If Chara flares out to cover Higuain when the Argentine leaves the middle, Portland will be leaving the gap between midfield and defense unguarded. Add that in with the fact that the Crew are great at forcing their opponents to defend the full width of the field, and that will leave a lot of space for the rest of the Columbus attack to work with. It's no mistake that, for example, Tony Tchani scored a career-high five goals this season. Even when Higuain isn't doing the playmaking himself, he's creating a situation with his movement that allows the other ten players to get the job done.
Or maybe Chara stays home, and Portland leaves the job of shutting Higuain down to whoever happens to be nearby at the time. That's a pretty dangerous game too, because Higuain is far and away the most creative and skillful Crew player. Portland's 433 will look a lot like a 4141, so the rest of the midfield will have help when Higuain leaves the middle, but having to ask Diego Valeri to chase Higuain around defensively is not really a good recipe.
In either case, Higuain has a great chance to have an impact on this game, and fans should pay special attention to his movement with and without the ball.
Key question for Columbus: What happens if Kei Kamara's injury keeps him out?
The Golden Boot runner-up picked up an injury of some sort in training yesterday morning, and Columbus views him as a game-time decision. Unlike missing his final shot at adding goals and taking the Golden Boot - an opportunity he lost due to picking up an indefensible yellow card in the Crew's penultimate game, drawing a suspension - this would be true hard luck for both Kamara and Columbus.
It would also change their gameplan significantly. The Crew's way of playing involves using width, aggressive fullback play, and possession all primarily to set up crosses into the box for Kamara to attack. Of course, that didn't seem to bother them much in that game Kamara missed due to suspension. Remember that one? D.C. United was unable, for 90 minutes, to figure out what to do with Jack McInerney. Jack Mac doesn't really fit the Crew's system, but with movement and a consistent tendency to play one- or two-touch soccer, he got around his lack of size by simply never keeping the ball for long. McInerney was mentally first to just about everything, and United could never make their size advantage in that area of the field count.
Berhalter could also roll with livewire attacker Cedrick, or even Aaron Schoenfeld if he believes having a real target man makes more sense against Portland, but I doubt it. If Kamara can't go, look for the Crew to start McInerney and to show more of a focus on mobility and quickly moving the ball in the attack. There will be fewer crosses in that case, and more attempts to break in through the channels.
Key player for Portland: Fanendo Adi
Let's start with numbers: Adi scored 39% of Portland's regular season goals (16 of 41). He's the only player they have with more than one playoff goal in their march to MLS Cup. Sometimes you don't have to dig deep to figure out how a team gets the job done.
Here, Adi's size and back-to-goal play should be huge. Columbus struggled all season with defending against physical strikers all year long (particularly in the air, though that's not Adi's game really), and Portland loves to find their target man's feet. Gaston Sauro certainly helped fix the problem, but I'm not sure his style of game meshes well with Adi's from a Crew perspective. Sauro wants to go up and win headers; on the ground, he can be a bit too aggressive. Portland has made their set pieces count in the postseason, so if Sauro starts handing out free kicks we could see the Timbers make them pay for it.
Inside the box, Adi has shown a tendency to know what the gray areas are and how to make use of them. His goal against FC Dallas in the second leg of the Western Conference final involved tossing Walker Zimmerman to the ground. It was an obvious foul, but with the action outside the box at the time Adi got away with it. That's an extreme example of something Adi knows: Strikers can get away with a lot when the ball is elsewhere. Look for him to key on Michael Parkhurst - already victimized for a goal due to some physical play from Johan Venegas back in the Eastern Conference semifinal round - in these situations.
Key question for Portland: Can they win the midfield?
We've talked about Higuain vs. Chara already, so let's bring in the rest of the midfield. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, thanks to the nature of Portland's inverted triangle, will be seeing an awful lot of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp. Normally the focus in these situations is how the attacking midfielders can get the better of the defensive midfielders, but it might be more important to focus on the opposite. Trapp in particular is a major factor for Columbus in terms of switching the point of attack. If Valeri and Nagbe can't make things difficult for him, the Crew attack will be able to make use of the width that is their calling card.
However, if they can dull Trapp's influence, Columbus becomes a lesser team. Tchani can't pass over distance quite as well, and if Higuain is spending more and more time dropping deep to do this job himself it means he's doing a lot less work on the other end. Portland's defense today is going to need the playmakers to put in plenty of work, in other words.
Going the other way, the Timbers need to make Trapp do more of the grunt work than he normally does. Trapp's game is built around intelligence; he's making interceptions rather than physically battling his way into successful tackles. Tchani will be able to boss the midfield with his strength and size if Portland can't move the ball quickly enough to avoid him, so don't be surprised if the Timbers are trying to make Trapp chase Nagbe or get stuck in against Valeri instead.
Match date/time: Sunday 12/6, 4:00pm Eastern (note: expect kickoff to be closer to 4:30)
Venue: Mapfre Stadium (Columbus, OH)
TV: ESPN (English), UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)
Treat this as today's gamethread.