This weekend saw two teams stamp their tickets to the MLS Final. The Columbus Crew lost to the New York Red Bulls 1-0 at Red Bull Arena, but thanks to their strong home performance the previous week they advanced 2-1 on aggregate. In the Western Conference, the Portland Timbers battled to a 2-2 draw with FC Dallas after dominating the Texans 3-1 in the first leg to comfortably advance to the club’s first ever MLS Cup final. Neither of these clubs possesses the star power that the likes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York City FC and the Red Bulls have, but their fighting spirit and team chemistry have set the stage for an exciting final in Columbus.
Starting with the Timbers, one unsung hero for them has been veteran defender Nat Borchers. The 34-year-old had spent the last years of his career as the centerpiece of Real Salt Lake’s backline, and has quickly settled into that same role with his new club. Despite his relatively old age, Borchers has appeared in all but two of the Timbers’ matches this season and has helped lead the club to one of the best defensive records in the league. In the dying embers of this weekend’s match against FC Dallas, Borchers provided a pivotal block on a goal-bound volley to prevent the match from going into extra time. This willingness to sacrifice his body for the good of the team exemplifies the passion and will-to-win that has defined Borchers’ long professional career. Going up against the league’s top scorer, Kei Kamara, will be Borchers’ toughest task of the playoffs, but don’t expect him to shy away from the challenge.
Through both legs of the semifinal, five different players found the back of the net for Portland. Caleb Porter’s side has shown the ability to find the back of the net no matter what the situation. The Timbers can score nitty gritty goals from set pieces and from close range. They can score thunderbolts from outside the penalty area. They can even dribble past your goalkeeper if you somehow take away the other two options. This versatile and deep attack makes the Timbers a very dangerous opponent, and the pressure of a big stage doesn’t seem to faze them in the slightest. For me, I’m looking at players like Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano (last match’s goal scorers) to continue their hot form and possibly carry their team to a championship.
At MAPFRE Stadium this year, the Columbus Crew have won just nine of their 17 home matches, claiming 31 out of a possible 51 points. To put that in context, out of the rest of the teams that qualified for the post-season this year, just two had worse home records. However, in the playoffs Gregg Berhalter’s men have been absolutely perfect when playing in Ohio. During their two home games in the post-season, the Crew have claimed two victories against the Montreal Impact and the Red Bulls, and limited these high-powered attacking teams to just one goal through both matches. The atmosphere at MAPFRE stadium during their latest fixture against New York was electric, and it should be even better for Sunday’s final. Can Columbus maintain their perfect home record in the playoffs on the biggest of stages?
I know some of you are probably tired of me talking about Kei Kamara whenever the Crew are involved so I’ll focus my attention on another player: Justin Meram. During the first leg of the semifinals, the Iraqi international was arguably Columbus’ most threatening player in attack. His goal just ten seconds into the match took away the Red Bulls’ momentum early, and set the stage for the Crew to advance. Meram was unlucky not to find the net one or two more times that match, as his ability to create space for himself in tight spaces puzzled the Red Bull defense. This season, Meram has scored seven goals , and registered just three assists. Don’t judge him by the relatively tame stat line, judge him by his recent knack for performing in big matches. His cheeky flicked pass to Kamara in this weekend’s match nearly saw Kamara score the goal of the season, only for Luis Robles to come up with an equally impressive diving save. With most of the Timbers’ attention likely to be focused on stopping Kamara from scoring Sunday, look for Meram to have more space on the wings to work with, and he may just be the player to win the Cup for Columbus.
It’s hard to pick against the home team, especially when it’s a championship fixture. While I love the Portland Timbers’ raucous fanbase, and their drive to win, I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the Columbus attack Sunday. Kei Kamara has proven time and time again that he can find the back of the net, no matter who the opposition is, and I think that he will find it in this match, as well. Final Score: Columbus Crew 3-1 Portland Timbers