The Portland Timbers and their “victory log” are en route to Columbus, where, on Sunday afternoon, they’ll challenge the Columbus Crew for the league title in the 2015 MLS Cup Final. The game may not feature the big names of recent MLS imports such as Didier Drogba or Steven Gerrard, but anyone who thinks some of the best talent in MLS isn’t on showcase this Sunday hasn’t been paying attention. With both proven veterans and potentially nascent U.S. National Team stars, the MLS Cup Final has a number of players worth watching—and a pair of match ups that may hold the key to the title.
Will Trapp vs. Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri
Columbus defensive midfielder Will Trapp is among the league’s brightest young stars, and a key piece of the Crew’s success this season. A holding midfielder who is as comfortable on the ball as he is flying in to challenge for it, the 22 year old from Ohio has been tapped as a key cog in next year’s US Olympic squad, and could prove to be an important piece of Jurgen Klinsmann’s plans by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls around. Before his retirement last season, France and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry praised Trapp’s ability to boss a game from midfield, while also pressing up and distributing the ball for his teammates in attack. Trapp may be young, but with three seasons and more than sixty MLS caps to his name, he’s far from raw.
His talent and experience notwithstanding, Trapp’s task against Portland is no small ask. Matching up against Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, the Crew’s young defensive midfielder will be chasing down two of the most in-form attacking midfielders in MLS this autumn. Nagbe—both a fellow Ohioan and a former Akron Zip, leaving just a year before Trapp arrived at Akron—has been on fire for Portland during the second half of this season, flourishing in a more central role. Nagbe, a Liberian-born US citizen, was rewarded for his fine form with his first call up to the USMNT this fall, as he participated in both of the United States first two World Cup Qualifiers.
Diego Valeri does not have the pace of the spritely Darlington Nagbe, and unlike his more youthful teammate, the 29 year old Argentine is unlikely to find himself in his national team’s picture. But, for Portland, Valeri’s vision and distribution is perhaps the most important factor in the Timbers recent success. Having battled back from a torn ACL which forced him to miss much of this campaign, Valeri re-cemented his place as the cornerstone of Portland’s midfield. And PTFC is far, far better with him, having won a woeful two of nine games at the beginning of the season prior to his return.
This brilliant back-heel—followed by an equally scrumptious finish from Lucas Melano—in the Conference Semifinals shows Valeri’s ability to find teammates in difficult positions, at important moments. And that’s precisely what Trapp will be looking to stop. If Will Trapp can harry Nagbe and Valeri in midfield and get them rattled, winning possession and disrupting Portland’s passing game and keeping their dangerous attacking midfielders out of the box, then the Crew will have a good chance of coming out on top this weekend. If not—well, perhaps we’ll see another screamer of this caliber.
Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey
For all Nagbe and Valeri’s offensive threat, when it comes to scoring goals, the single most prolific player on the pitch the Crew’s Kei Kamara. The 31-year-old Sierra Leone international is currently in his second stint at Columbus, and has hardly enjoyed better form his whole career. Kamara co-led the league in scoring this season, his 22 goals the equal of MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco. With service coming in from the dangerous Ethan Finaly, Kamara will be the best bet for a goalscorer this weekend. One of the league’s best headers of the ball, he is especially dangerous in the air, but Kamara’s agile play on the ball and ability to pick out a pass make him more than a static target man.
If somewhat less flashy than 22 goals, Nat Borchers’ defending has been arguably as important for Portland as Kamara’s prolific scoring. For example, without the magnificence of this last-minute block on Blas Perez shot in the Conference Finals, it could well have been Dallas, not Portland, in the Cup Final. Having signed from Real Salt Lake prior to this season, the 34-year old Borchers returns to the Cup Final for the second time in the past three years. This time, he’ll be hoping to hoist the Cup itself.
Should Kamara make his way past Borchers—and, in truth, it’s hard to see him failing to do so at least once or twice through the 90 minutes—he’ll have to beat Portland goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, owner of this year’s save of the season for MLS. Like Borchers in front of him, Ghana’s number one goalkeeper signed for Portland prior to this season, replacing veteran Donovan Ricketts. The boots and gloves were big to fill, but Kwarasey has filled them and then some. Like Borchers’ block in the Semifinal, Kwarasey’s play has kept Portland in this tournament, time and again. Most dramatically, in the first knockout round against Sporting Kansas City, Kwarasey both converted a penalty kick, and saved the ensuing shot to send his team on in the tournament.
Despite the Timbers’ extraordinary form through the past two months, it’s safe to say that the Crew, playing at home, are favorites on Sunday. Moreover, betting against Kei Kamara’s scoring prowess would be a poor wager this weekend. The match will likely come down to whether or not Borchers and Kwarasey can produce some repeat heroics in defense. If so, Portland just might pull off the upset. If not, Kamara’s triumphant return to Ohio may be accompanied by the ultimate crown.