This is it, folks. One more game. At home. For all of the marbles. Hold onto your butts.
The occasion on Saturday is of course, huge. Providence Park will play host to the league’s marquee event and the Portland Timbers will have the chance to lift the MLS Cup at home for the first time in their history. The stadium is sure to be full and rocking, and the day will undoubtedly feel like the massive event that it is.
Portland’s opponent is New York City FC, who are making their first appearance in a cup final of any sort, in their seventh season of existence. Also a four-seed, they rode a late season surge to earn their spot in the final.
The game is sure to be fast, energetic, frenetic, and back and forth. So in a phrase: a cup final. Here’s what to expect, and how the 2021 MLS Cup is going to go down:
NYCFC in 2021
Portland’s foes are more than worthy opponents. NYCFC entered the league in 2015 with loads of promise and expectations heaped on their shoulders, and up until recent years, they hadn’t lived up to it.
Recently, however, after establishing a style of play, settling on a solid coaching staff, and making some key impact signings, NYCFC has been on the ascendency. They have been one of the winningest teams in the league over the past five years and making their first MLS Cup Final has been a just reward for their progression.
But that progression didn’t come easy in 2021. NYCFC started the year decently but stumbled through most of the early stages of the season. Despite being one of the best teams in the league statistically, the Pigeons could not string together a consistent run of results. They endured a stretch of 15 games with just three wins and went four straight games without scoring.
But then, they managed to scrap a last gasp draw against Atlanta United in late October and it jumpstarted their stretch run. NYCFC has gone undefeated in their final eight games of the season, including the playoffs. They were the hottest team in the Eastern Conference entering the postseason, and similar to the momentum the Timbers have enjoyed, they rode a wave of momentum all the way to the Eastern Conference title.
Their success has been built on the backs of skilled position players, and a possession-focused style of play. NYCFC favored a 4-2-3-1 formation for most of the season and especially in the playoffs. Their style of play focuses on winning the ball in advantageous positions, moving it quickly, and finding their attackers in dangerous positions.
Those dangerous players include one of the league’s best playmakers and the 2021 Golden Boot winner. Maxi Moralez, NYC’s marquee Argentine playmaker, has been enjoying another very solid year. He’s tallied 11 assists on the year and leads the team in expected assists and expected assists per ninety minutes. He is the string-puller for NYCFC and is the one who stirs the sky blue drink for the Pigeons.
The main man he’s stirring the drink for is Taty Castellanos, the 2021 Golden Boot winner. He led the league totaling 19 goals over the course of the regular season and has since chipped in two during the playoffs. He has done so primarily by pressing the back line and receiving the ball in dangerous spots. Not only did he lead the league in goals this year but he did so in expected goals as well. He’s a smart and skilled striker who is adept at making space for himself with the ball and is deadly in front of goal.
Castellanos and Moralez are assisted by additional dangerous attackers like Jesus Medina and Santiago Rodriguez on the wings. That formidable front line has tallied 34 goals over the course of the season. They’re backed up by aggressive fullbacks and a solid defensive midfield pair of USMNT hopeful James Sands and former USMNT player Alfredo Morales.
All of those pieces come together in an aggressive and possession-focused style. NYCFC seek to press high and win the ball in dangerous spaces. Their style of play focuses first on closing space and winning the ball and then moving it along very quickly to unsettle the defense. They’ve made it this far in the playoffs by playing pretty soccer and by using the ball to keep the pressure off their back line, subsequently making space for their attackers.
All in all, NYCFC is a solid side that has proved lethal in the playoffs. Castellanos has found fantastic look after fantastic look and the team’s bevy of attackers has been able to unsettle opposing defenses enough to score multiple goals a game throughout the playoffs. Their defense and midfield have also done well to carry them to the final. Despite finishing fourth in the East, they are as formidable an opponent as they come.
Of course, that means that the Timbers will once again have to be keyed in at every position on the field if they want to be the ones lifting the hardware at the end of the day on Saturday. NYCFC give them plenty to deal with and plenty to keep track of on the field.
The first battlefield which will have a factor in deciding the game will be the midfield. Portland’s midfield of Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes will be tasked with tracking NYC’s attackers and also with breaking past the opposing defensive pair. How well they are able to win space and move the ball past pressure will dictate how well Portland are able to create around NYC.
That also includes winning the ball and using it well. Whichever attackers the Timbers start on Saturday, they will need to be ready to react quickly. The Pigeons will not allow them much time with the ball at their feet and so Portland will need to be decisive and direct with their attacking movements.
We have seen the Timbers do this before in the playoffs - last week in fact. Portland’s first goal is indicative of the kind of focused direct attacking play the Timbers will need to show to break New York’s lines and get their attackers the space they need.
Winning the ball and exploiting space high up the pitch are the two of the biggest attacking keys to Portland scoring goals on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, the defense is going to have to be sure they keep everything in front of them. As stated, NYC moves the ball and their attackers around a lot. The Timbers will need to be prepared to keep track of both runners and the ball to limit NYC’s access to dangerous half-spaces in which they love to operate.
The center back tandem of Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic has been very solid throughout the playoffs and in Castellanos, they will be facing the most dangerous forward they have all postseason. How well they track him and how quickly the rest of the defense is able to rotate and close down angles, will tell us a lot about how whether or not the Timbers are able to keep NYCFC’s attack at bay.
The X-factor to all of the above is the raucous Providence Park crowd and the energy provided by Portland’s homefield advantage.
I fully expect the game to start off at the speed of approximately a mile a minute, fueled by Timbers Army and stadium. If the Timbers want to take advantage, they will need to harness that early energy and start fast. They were able to do so against Real Salt Lake last week and deliver an early blow. Something similar would do wonders to help disrupt NYC’s game plan.
It would also allow the Timbers to play their own game, which starts and ends with winning the midfield and playing direct. Regardless of the energy and regardless of NYC’s style, the Timbers have a style of play that has proved massively successful in the playoffs. If they are able to stick to that by getting bodies into the middle of the field, play direct into their attackers like Dairon Asprilla, Yimmi Chara, and Sebastian Blanco (whenever he steps onto the field), and find the gaps in front of NYCFC’s backline, then they will find opportunities to put the ball in the back of the net.
NYCFC will look to close space and prevent Portland from playing out. They will then press to win the ball in good spots. The Timbers will need to keep NYC in front of them and then play directly to get in behind. It’s going to be tense, it’s going to be intense, and the game will may well be won or lost in the margins. So again: it’s a gosh dang cup final, in Portland, Oregon.
And here’s the part where I usually make a prediction. And here’s also the part where I don’t go quite that far this time.
I will only tempt the soccer gods so much. Throwing something out into the universe here is just a bit too nervy for me, so I’m not going to chance it at this moment, with so much riding on the line. Alex did his best yesterday to surmise Portland’s front line for Saturday, so I’ll leave the lineup predictions to him.
All I will add is this - the Timbers were ready for the moment last week when they won the chance to host the final. And if we’re using the past as precedent, then by all accounts they look ready to meet this moment on Saturday and harness the energy of the crowd to do what they’ve fought so hard this season to achieve - win MLS Cup.
Portland is an experienced and veteran team and they will have an Army at their backs. The Timbers are ready for this moment and the city is ready with them.