Nat Borchers, Kei Kamara top list of MLS Cup players to watch
Sunday's MLS Cup final between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) might not feature many globally known names, but that's not to say that some of the domestic league's top performers won't be on display at sold-out Mapfre Stadium in Ohio's chilly capital. Here are five stars to watch in the title match.
Nat Borchers, DF, Portland
The Timbers might not be at the MLS Cup at all if not for the goal-saving block Borchers made on FC Dallas forward Blas Perez in the dying moments of Sunday's Western Conference championship second leg in Texas. Center-back Borchers was a rock throughout that game in the absence of partner and Premier League veteran Liam Ridgewell (calf), just as he has been all season, his first in Portland after spending the previous six with Real Salt Lake.
Borchers' presence has been huge for Caleb Porter's side, helping the Timbers concede 13 fewer goals this season than they did in 2014, when Portland failed to qualify for the playoffs. His MLS Cup experience will be leaned on heavily this weekend; the 34-year-old won a title in 2009 and came painfully close to adding a second two years ago, when RSL lost to Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks. (Borchers converted his.) So while Ridgewell is expected to return for the finale in Columbus, Borchers is the Timbers defender to keep an eye on -- and not just because of his glorious facial hair.
Ethan Finlay, MF, Columbus
With 10 goals and 13 assists, the 25-year-old winger enjoyed a breakout season, starting all 34 regular-season games in his fourth as a pro and in Columbus. "This year I wanted to really set my mark, and I've been able to do that," Finlay told ESPN FC after last weekend's Eastern Conference title win against the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey. "The biggest thing I've learned this year is to be able to make adjustments. At the wide position, you can't always get down the wing and cross the ball. New York's a good example. They were kind of all over me when I tried to get crosses in. You have to be able to vary it up."
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Still, his blistering pace on the wings is his bread and butter and it has made coach Gregg Berhalter's team among the most dynamic in MLS, opening up space that Kei Kamara (more on him below) and others have been able to exploit. "It makes our attack multidimensional," Trapp said.
Darlington Nagbe, MF, Portland
The newly minted U.S. national team player -- the Liberia-born Nagbe became an American citizen in September before playing in the United States' first two World Cup qualifiers of the 2018 cycle last month -- was uncharacteristically quiet in Sunday's 2-2 tie at Dallas, which was enough to see the Timbers through 5-3 on aggregate.
Part of that was down to FCD's tactics; Nagbe was fouled a team-high four times in the match. No wonder. The 25-year-old had been everywhere in Portland's 3-1, first-leg win on Nov. 22, spraying passes around the field from the central midfield spot usually occupied by Argentine Diego Valeri, who was forced to sit out the series opener because of yellow card accumulation. With both playmakers in the lineup in Columbus, the hosts must be on high alert.
"I like Valeri and Nagbe in the middle now working together," Berhalter said. "So it's going to be challenging."
Wil Trapp, MF, Columbus
The Crew finished as runner-up to the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. But Columbus might have won the East outright had the clever, technical defensive midfielder not missed almost three months recovering from a concussion suffered in training in early April. Trapp returned in July, but his influence has been particularly apparent in these playoffs -- he helped keep New York off the scoreboard until stoppage time of the second leg of the conference final, which Columbus won 2-1 on aggregate.
Trapp is one of the main reasons that Crew SC -- which allowed a league-high 58 regular-season goals -- has been stingy lately, when it has mattered the most. The Ohio native and U.S. under-23 international will be charged with winning balls and keeping tabs on Portland's dangerous midfielders, but he can also start the attack from his deep-lying position.
Kei Kamara, FW, Columbus
Perhaps no personnel move in MLS this season paid off the way Kamara's return to Columbus did for the Crew. Acquiring the proven MLS target striker was rightly seen as a coup when the deal was announced on New Year's Day. In his first seven seasons in the league, the imposing Sierra Leone native scored 52 times for Houston, San Jose, Kansas City and Columbus, where he began his pro career in 2006. But few could have foreseen the impact Kamara was able to make after two-plus seasons spent in England, including an 11-game stint with Norwich City in the Premier League.
Kamara lit up opposing defenses to the tune of 22 goals in 2015, tied atop the league charts with Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco. But unlike the Italian national team veteran, who went out with a whimper in TFC's one game, a 3-0 playoff elimination in Montreal, Kamara has been even better during the postseason, finding the net three times in four games, including what turned out to be the eventual series-winning goal against the Red Bulls. Stopping him will be the key to Portland's chances on Sunday. Easier said than done.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.