Here are the ten things we learned from the 2015 MLS Cup.
1. The Timbers are champions
It wasn’t a beautiful final, but this year’s MLS Cup from MAPFRE Stadium was a classic for all the controversy, intensity, and insanity it had from start to finish.
The Timbers, thanks to two goals in the first seven minutes, won it 2-1. In many respects, it was a tremendous performance – Portland limited Columbus to a single shot, and hit the post three times in a second half that they dominated even as the Crew pushed for an equalizer.
This has been an incredible journey for the Timbers. Just two and a half months ago, they sat in seventh place in the Western Conference before a tactical switch set the team up for a nine-game unbeaten run to win the club’s first championship in its forty year existence in its fortieth game of 2015.
Portland just got better and better. Diego Valeri’s return to health, Fanendo Adi’s maturation, Darlington Nagbe’s emergence, and the invaluable contributions of three wingers – joined with a back six that was already MLS’ best – created a force.
They deserved it. Front to back, no team was built or balanced better. This is the Rose City’s first major professional sports title since 1977, and it will be remembered in Portland for generations to come.
2. The Crew didn’t play well
There’s no way Columbus can be satisfied with how Sunday played out – and not just because of the missed call that eventually led to Portland’s second goal.
They can’t be satisfied because they didn’t play a good game. That, as much as anything, has to be a tough pill to swallow.
Steve Clark is capable of truly sensational howlers, but he outdid himself for once and for all just thirty seconds into the game when his inexplicable lack of urgency on the ball gifted the opening goal to Diego Valeri.
Clark would redeem himself somewhat – he had several terrific saves on Adi, and his denial of Nat Borchers with time running down was jaw-dropping – and the Columbus center-backs did a nice job to contain the Timbers attack through the middle.
Other than that, though, no one in yellow left was covered in glory.
Ethan Finley was mercifully pulled midway through the second half after being bottled up by Jorge Villafaña. Federico Higuain was wayward more than he was spectacular, while, for all his industry, Justin Meram threatened little.
The Crew couldn’t put crosses in dangerous positions, and, despite having a ton of possession, never made the game uncomfortable for Borchers or Liam Ridgewell. Columbus didn’t lose because of a blown call. They got beaten – handily – by a better team on one of their poorer days.
3. The Timbers won out wide
There weren’t many places where the Crew had clear personnel advantages over the Timbers, but they figured they might be able to find some joy wide.
And that was going to be important. Columbus had been one of the league’s best teams on crosses all season. But in this game, they got dominated out wide by, quite possibly, the five least-heralded Timbers on the field.
Villafaña against Finley was a mismatch, and it was the MLS Best XI selection that got dominated. Finley often looks ordinary against top-class competition, and that’s exactly what Villafaña is. There will be a huge market for his services this winter, and he should get a look from Jurgen Klinsmann in January.
Alvas Powell is still erratic, but he too did a nice job on the likes of Meram. The Columbus fullbacks were particularly disappointing themselves. Neither Harrison Afful or Waylon Francis were able to distinguish themselves like they did against New York.
Further up the field, Portland’s wingers all pitched in. Wallace provided his usual industry, Lucas Melano played one of the better defensive games of his MLS career, and Dairon Asprilla was bright off the bench.
What happened after the non-call on the sideline on the game-winner said it all: Wallace lost Afful on the back post, and Melano picked him out.
4. Mismatch in the stands
The effort by the Timbers Army in the week leading up to the game was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The group sold out its allotment of 900 tickets four minutes after it went on sale last Monday morning. All told, there were some 2,000 Timbers fans in Columbus for the match.
All week, the Army coordinated with those fans, bars, and both clubs to set up raffles, meet-ups, a tailgate, and rides from every airport across the Midwest to the capital of Ohio. Timber Joey’s log made the trip from Oregon, as did a specially chartered Alaska Airlines flight full of fans.
The Army was deafening during the game, and could be continually heard over the Columbus fans.
The Nordecke, meanwhile, disgraced themselves by throwing cans and bottles at Timbers players after their second goal, while Valeri was grabbed by fans by fans on the opposite end of the field while trying to take a corner late in the match.
Most fans, of course, were perfectly amicable – and there’s a ton of mutual respect from these club’s coaches and owners. Columbus is the spiritual the home of American soccer, and it’s clearly going through something of a rebirth. But Portland, Soccer City, USA, is on a different level. They outclassed Columbus on Sunday.
5. Diego Chara is inhuman
Caleb Porter praised Chara after the game, calling him a “machine” and saying he never gets the credit he deserves.
Chara was fantastic in this game, covering oodles of ground and breaking up countless Columbus opportunities. The Timbers’ much-ballyhooed inverted 4-3-3 doesn’t work without the Columbian, who, unlike Dax McCarty in the East Final, was able to make life difficult for Higuain.
Chara, along with Jack Jewsbury, Rodney Wallace, Nagbe, and Jake Gleeson, is an original MLS Timber. In the five years I’ve watched him play, it seems he hasn’t aged a minute – and my guess is that five years from now, he’ll still be smiling, still be running, and still be on of Portland’s most best players.
6. Heartbreak for Parkhurst & Kamara
These two did all they could. Despite the goal, it was a tough afternoon for Kamara – who was starved of service and ended up flaring wide and deep to get the ball. He never got a second chance.
When these teams played in September, Parkhurst was abused by Fanendo Adi. This time, however, the Crew captain held his own against Adi and was instrumental in calming his team down after their nightmare start.
Parkhurst is now an agonizing 0 for 4 in MLS Cups, having lost in 2005, 2006, and 2007 with New England, while Kamara misses out this time after leaving Columbus in their Cup-winning season of 2008 and Sporting Kansas City in their Cup-winning season of 2013.
Both players are 31, with a lot of miles on their legs. Kamara and Parkhurst are fine men, and assets to MLS, but they might have seen MLS Cup slip through their grasp for the final time.
7. Ready from the whistle
Steve Clark sure wasn’t, but Columbus’ problems early in the game went beyond him. The Crew crumbled in the first ten minutes.
Portland, meanwhile, came out ready to fire. It was the difference in the game.
The trend continued to the substitutes. Jack McInerney looked nowhere near the pace when he was introduced in the second half. In contrast, Dairon Asprilla was immediately effective for the Timbers down the left-hand side.
8. Thoughts on the ESPN broadcast
Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellmen called a fantastic game. They brought plenty of insight and knowledge while doing a terrific job of encapsulating the drama of the events as they unfolded.
ESPN’s onsite studio crew, however, was just one step above awful. Kasey Keller started the afternoon by calling Fanendo Adi Fernando Adi. Considering that Keller has called games involving Adi some six times over the last two years, that is inexcusable.
Keller’s was his usual grating self, and he gave viewers little substance on the game. Alejandro Moreno provided even less. The crew didn’t have much airtime, but in the little they did have, they lacked the gravitas and expertise to match the occasion – in stark contrast to the game announcers.
9. Joy for Portland
This wasn’t an easy ride for the Timbers. Back in May, this team faced a supporter’s protest at home before a game against DC United. GM Gavin Wilkinson has been on the end of vitriol for too many years to remember, while Porter took questions about his own future as late as October.
Adi was the target of plenty of fan abuse in the summer, while frustrations with Nagbe reached an all-time high. But all they came good. It’s an incredible validation of the project embarked on by Merritt Paulson, Wilkinson, and Porter three years ago.
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