In just two short days the Portland Timbers will be playing the Columbus Crew SC in the MLS Cup Final. To get a better look at the Timbers opponents, we reached out to Patrick Murphy of our sister site the Massive Report and he was happy to answer a few questions for us.
The Timbers got a 2-1 win on the road in Columbus late in the regular season, jump-starting the team's push up the standings in the Western Conference. What did the Crew take away from that game and how have the home side changed since then?
That game has obviously come up a lot this week in interviews with the players and the staff. Head coach Gregg Berhalter has given a lot of credit to Portland for playing a good game and taking advantage of opportunities in that match.
From what they've said, it sounds like the team learned a lot from that game. Not only about themselves, but how the Timbers play. Berhalter and multiple players said they've watched the tape from that game and are using that in the match preparation this week. The team expects differences from Portland on Sunday, but it's giving them some things to work on to avoid repeating mistakes of the last match.
The Crew gave up an average of 1.63 goals per game before Gaston Sauro showed up and only 1.00 goals per game since then. Has Sauro really improved the Crew back line that dramatically or is there something else going on here? Regardless, what is it that this new player brings to the table?
I think there are a few factors involved in Crew SC's defensive improvement of late. Sauro definitely has made a difference. No disrespect to Tyson Wahl who has filled in serviceably when called upon this year and last, but Sauro is a smart, physical defender with a lot of experience and compliments fellow central defender Michael Parkhurst well. He can matchup physically with players like Didier Drogba or Fanendo Adi, which is something the team has lacked since Emmanuel Pogatetz fell out of favor earlier in the season.
Berhalter has said over and over that defending is a team game. For much of the early portion of the year, the Black & Gold were without Wil Trapp who is the anchor in the midfield and drops in to help defend as well. Mohammed Saeid filled in well for him, but was playing out of his natural position. Trapp, who learned this role under Caleb Porter in college, is a big part of slowing down the opposition's attack and his return helped to solidify things once he was back to full fitness.
The outside backs also deserve credit for the turnaround defensively. In Berhalter's system, these players are given credit for what they do offensively, really adding the width to the attack, but both Harrison Afful -- who also joined the team midseason -- and Waylon Francis have done well defending. In the Eastern Conference Final, these two shut down some very good attackers in Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella and should be a factor again in the Final.
It has been a long seven years since Sigi Schmid, Guillermo Barros Schellotto, and Frankie Hedjuk won Columbus's lone MLS Cup. Do any vestiges of that team remain? And how did winning that title affect the franchise and the fanbase?
The only remanence of 2008 is Hejduk who works for the club as "Brand Ambassador" and will certainly make his presence known on Sunday. Other than that, it's just memories of the Homegrown players who watched the game and the fans that cheered the team on.
That championship was interesting because of what followed. Schmid left that offseason to become the manager of the Seattle Sounders and took Brad Evans with him. His assistant coach and former Crew SC player Robert Warzycha took over and things were never quite the same. Even though the club won the Supporter's Shield the following year, the Black & Gold could never get back to the heights of 2008. Schellotto left, Hejduk retired, and Chad Marshall joined Sigi in Seattle.
It took a while, but it set in motion what was needed to bring in Berhalter and the staff that is now in place to setup this Final. Columbus fans obviously would have liked to see success happen quicker, but if Crew SC lifts the Phillip F. Anschutz Trophy on Sunday, no one will be complaining about how long it took to do it for the second time.
You can find my answers to Patrick's questions, plus plenty of Crew coverage, over at the Massive Report.