Dissecting the tactical battles that will determine who wins MLS Cup
Rather than being a battle of styles, Sunday's MLS Cup final may turn out to be a game that is determined by one team's ability to impose themselves in a key area that their opponent had also hoped to dominate. Here are three areas of the game to watch:
When the New York Red Bulls failed to score against Columbus Crew SC for 183 minutes of their Eastern Conference Championship series, a lot of attention was legitimately paid to the Red Bulls' attacking shortcomings, but the bigger revelation was that the attack was given almost nothing to build on, thanks to the efforts of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp. The Crew SC defensive midfielders repeatedly won the ball back and quickly and directly moved it upfield, keeping the normally reliable New York midfield second-guessing themselves throughout the tie.
Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter needs a similarly efficient performance from this duo in the final. Allowing Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe time on the ball can be fatal at the best of times, whether they're picking a pass or running at defenses. But when Portland get to set the tempo and build a rhythm, they are a truly dangerous side. Trapp and Tchani will be key to disrupting that and moving the hosts into transition.
And of course on the other side, there has rightfully been a lot of focus on the midfield reshuffle that moved Nagbe to a more central position, but has also seen Diego Chara operating solo as a screening midfielder in recent weeks. Chara's not exactly been a revelation considering he's always displayed the qualities to do well in that position, but what has perhaps been a surprise is manager Caleb Porter's willingness to move key parts around so late in the season.
One of the strengths of both teams is their elasticity, their ability to adjust to the qualities of their opposition and cancel them out. Columbus Crew SC may have taken their time in working out the defensive side of things, but they have refined their team at just the right time of the year, while Portland spent long stretches having all the elements functioning -- just not all at the same time. They too, found form down the stretch and have extended it all the way to MLS Cup.
Both sides are tight on both sides of the ball, so the key may well be the introduction of substitutes against fatigued legs. Such decisions have been the catalysts for key goals in both sides' runs.
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For Crew SC, Cedrick Mabwati is an ideal substitute to bring on to run at defenders tired of dealing with the lively Ethan Finlay. The second-half introduction of the Congolese player proved to be a turning point in both the Montreal and New York series.
For Portland, it's as much about the tone of the substitutions as the personnel. Under mounting pressure at the end of the Dallas series, Porter could have thrown an extra body on to pad out his rear guard. Instead, he made an attacking substitution and was rewarded with the stoppage-time foray that allowed Lucas Melano to kill the game off. If Portland happen to lead late on Sunday, watch the activity on their bench. If Porter makes a similar statement of "attack as defense" intent, Crew SC's flexibility will be stretched to the limit.
Just before half-time in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship, Kei Kamara pulled a ball out of the air, turned and shot low to Luis Robles' right in one fluid motion. Had the Red Bulls' goalkeeper not pulled off an acrobatic stop, that action could have killed the tie right there.
An hour or so earlier, Fanendo Adi was turning in the Dallas box to drive Portland into what would turn out to be an unassailable lead.
Both spearheads allow for a variety of different looks and approaches from their attacking cohorts. The creativity of both sets of attacking midfielders will be a natural focus of many previews of this game, and rightfully so, given both teams' speed and guile in those positions. But the space those players need to be effective is gained by the movement and availability of their front men, not to mention the potency of those No. 9s in front of goal. Both Kamara and Adi can do a job in the air when necessary, but they're each way more than target men.
Adi's hit a vein of goal-scoring form at just the right time, and he will hope to remind Crew SC of their regular-season defensive shortcomings. Kamara, of course, has been in rich form all season, and has unfinished business with MLS Cup. The striker left for Middlesbrough two months before Sporting KC finally made their MLS Cup breakthrough in 2013, and while he missed Crew SC's traumatic loss to New England in last year's playoffs, Columbus is where it all started for him. How Portland's central defenders deal with a driven Kamara early on may set the tone for the final.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.