With Sierra Leone striker Kei Kamara providing the scoring spark and Michael Parkhurst anchoring the backline, the Columbus Crew bid for a second Major League Soccer crown Sunday against Portland.
The Crew, whose lone title came in 2008, will host the Timbers in the MLS Cup championship match. Portland won their only meeting this season 2-1 at Columbus in September.
Kamara, 31, briefly played at Norwich City in England’s Premier League. He netted 22 goals this season to share the league scoring crown while US midfielder Ethan Finley added 12 more for the Crew. Nigerian Fanendo Adi paced Portland with 16 goals.
Parkhurst, 31, hopes for a title breakthrough after losing the 2005, 2006 and 2007 MLS Cup finals while with New England.
He’s the only Crew member with any prior final experience, while the Timbers can boast defender Nat Borchers and midfielder Will Johnson from 2009 MLS Cup champion Real Salt Lake.
Each team also has an attacking midfielder from Argentina, with Columbus ignited by Federico Higuain, who scored eight goals and set up nine more this season after 11 goals last season, and Portland bolstered by Diego Valeri, with two goals and eight assists this year after team bests of 11 goals and 14 set-ups last season.
As the Crew added talent around him, Higuain has given greater focus to igniting scoring attacks, just what Crew coach Greg Berhalter had in mind.
“With any transition, it does take a while to become familiar,” Berhalter said. “He has fully embraced his role in the team and with the style of play, he has found his role in it. It’s an important role and a complicated role.
“He’s the guy who ties everything together on both sides of the ball. He has been fantastic this year. He has been performing at a really high level.”
Higuain is happy at the heart of the Crew’s run to the final, which came because Columbus netted 58 goals despite allowing 53, the second-most of any playoff qualifier.
“I was lucky. I was playing in Argentina and this opportunity came about and we took it with many expectations. I found a very complete and competitive league where you only need to think about playing and improve your game,” Higuain said.
“MLS has grown a lot. It might look easy in the beginning coming from abroad, but it’s not the same once you’re playing. That’s why international stars are surprised about the league and decide to stay here in the end.”