Sunday’s MLS Cup, the league’s championship game, matches the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew. The tactical matchups in this one should be fascinating — but in a way, this is also “old MLS” vs. “new MLS.”
Columbus was one of the original MLS teams, saddled with a goofy Crew nickname and a bumblebee-based color scheme by the monstrously tone-deaf branding of the apparel companies that ran roughshod over the league’s launch. Despite that beginning, it was the first team to build its own soccer-specific stadium, which was part of the league’s original business plan. In a way, Columbus is a poster child for the original vision for MLS. Crew Stadium, now called Mapfre Stadium, has become a kind of home base for soccer in the United States.
Portland, meanwhile, is part of the new wave of MLS expansion, having come into the league in 2011 after a long tenure in the American second division. The Timbers are the perfect example of the league’s pivot; they have a history dating to the 1970s, a light-rail-connected downtown stadium, and a young, urbanized and absolutely rabid fan base. In a city famous for its hipster population, the Timbers are “authentic” — something that the league is desperate for, after the branding-based creations that were conjured from nowhere in 1996.
On the field Sunday (3 p.m., ESPN), the key matchup will be in front of Portland’s goal. Columbus striker Kei Kamara is the league’s leading scorer (25 goals, counting three in playoffs), and the Crew has two excellent wingers, Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram. Much of the game plan is simple — drive the ball into the box, and let Kamara find a way to score. Tasked with stopping Kamara are Portland center backs Nat Borchers (he’s the one with the giant beard), and Liam Ridgewell.
On the other side, Columbus has to contend with Portland’s strong central midfield, which is led by playmaker Darlington Nagbe, who recently earned U.S. citizenship and made his first appearances for the U.S. national team. The Timbers moved Nagbe into the center of the midfield toward the end of the year, allowing him to roam from box to box, and he responded with three goals in his final two regular-season games. Columbus defensive midfielders Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani will be tasked with cutting off Nagbe’s supply lines to playmaker Diego Valeri and forward Fanendo Adi, Portland’s two main threats.
Portland is trying to win its first championship, in its first title-game appearance since the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1975 — a big accomplishment for one of the defining clubs of the league’s new direction. A Timbers victory would be a step toward the new and away from the old in MLS. Columbus, though, is favored.