The 2015 Major League Soccer season kicked off nine months ago in sunny Carson, California. On Sunday, it will conclude in chilly Columbus, Ohio, with Columbus Crew SC facing off against the Portland Timbers for the coveted MLS Cup.
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Here are three things to watch:
1. How will Portland deal with Columbus’ wide play?
The Crew do the majority of their damage out wide with a talented midfield and arguably the best overlapping fullbacks in MLS in Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful. Because of this, teams often have been reluctant to challenge Columbus on the flanks, even though on several occasions — including multiple meetings with the Montreal Impact — it’s been the Crew’s Achilles’ heel. The Timbers will need to force the issue out wide to alleviate pressure on their own fullbacks and cut off space for potential crosses to Kei Kamara.
2. Will Columbus fall into an early lull?
There’s been a common theme among recent MLS Cups: notoriously slow starts. Why? Momentum. The first half hour plays out like chess match to see which team will make the first move, and often it’s a mistake that paves the way for the opening score. But this isn’t a Columbus team conducive to such hesitant play. The Crew will need to come out and be the aggressors we’ve seen throughout the playoffs, taking advantage of a hungry home crowd. Otherwise, don’t be surprised to see Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara work the Crew defense and catch the home team off guard.
3. Can Portland’s Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey make a play when it matters most?
Whether the game is tied or Columbus finds itself down one or two goals late, the Crew will create three or four stretches where it completely dominates the game. The Crew did it throughout the regular season en route to 15 wins and the No. 2 seed, and then again in the playoffs as Columbus took it to Montreal and New York; so there’s no reason why anyone should expect that trend to cease. Late against FC Dallas, which was looking to complete an incredible comeback, Nat Borchers made an unbelievable, diving defensive play to save the day. He and goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey will need to come up with two or three moments like that to thwart Kamara and the persistent Crew attack to win the club’s first-ever MLS Cup.
Columbus Crew SC 2, Portland Timbers 1