The MLS Cup Final is set, and the story lines abound. It is Columbus vs. Portland. It's one fan base that has tasted glory against another that pretends it has. It's Soccer City, U.S.A. vs. the USMNT's spiritual home. It's Kamara vs. Adi, Nagbe vs. Trapp, and Porter vs. Berhalter. It's the Timbers Army vs. Sherman's Army. It's the Midwest vs. the Pacific Northwest. It's Caleb Porter's return to Ohio in search of hardware. It is just about everything you could want from a championship game.
This year's has been one of the better MLS playoffs in recent memory, and the final has the makings of a classic. Let's recap this weekend's conference final action and preview the championship clash.
Eastern Conference Final
New York Red Bulls 1 - Columbus Crew SC 2 (Aggregate)
With two goals in the bag, Columbus just needed to maintain the status quo to advance to American soccer's biggest stage. After a full 90 minutes, New York nearly overcame the deficit when Anatole Abang scored to set up a thrilling final barrage that saw the ball trickle agonizingly wide, missing Columbus' goal by just inches. As you might have expected, New York dominated the run of play all game, but couldn't muster enough to force extra time.
Stat to know: Despite having an eight-shot advantage over Columbus, New York only had one more shot on goal than the Crew, winning the category 6-5.
Western Conference Final
FC Dallas 3 - Portland Timbers 5 (Aggregate)
If there is one team in the league that knows how to play an entertaining playoff game, it's Portland. After several back-and-forth games on this postseason run, the Timbers were again the subjects of a competitive affair in Frisco against a young Dallas squad with its back against the wall. Unlike Columbus, Portland added to its lead rather than resting on its laurels, and came away from the Lone Star State with a 5-3 aggregate victory after a thrilling 2-2 draw that saw Dallas' hopes dashed in the closing minutes (you heard it here first).
Quote to know: "This team has a lot of captains." - Diego Valeri during the post-game celebrations.
MLS Cup Final Preview
Portland defeated Columbus 2-1 in Columbus in their only regular season meeting of 2015 on Sept. 26. Fanendo Adi scored two goals to lift the Timbers over the Crew, who got a goal from MVP candidate Kei Kamara. Adi scored the winner in the 50th minute, just minutes after an all-square halftime break. The loss was the first of two in a row for C-Bus while Portland's win was one of four in its final five games to end the season.
This is Portland's first appearance in the MLS Cup Final, while Columbus will be making its second appearance in the showpiece game, which it won in 2008.
Prediction: That September match-up seems like a distant memory compared to the run these teams are on, and you can't really draw much from it. Both teams ended the regular season on 53 points, though Portland played in the opening knockout round while Columbus received a bye in the East. All things considered, this is as even a match-up as anyone could have imagined for the Cup Final, and it figures to be a close game that goes down to the closing moments.
Having said that, Portland is on a bit of a magical run, and there is considerable precedent across multiple sports for teams that played in an initial Wild Card round to parlay the extra game into extra momentum in the postseason (I'm looking at you, 2003 Marlins, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 Steelers, 2008 NY Football Giants, 2010 Colorado Rapids, 2014 San Francisco Giants, need I go on?). The bet here is that the Timbers win 2-1 on the road in C-Bus and bring the city of Portland its first major championship since the '77 Blazers NBA title.