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MLS Cup Preview: Why the Portland Timbers think they will beat NYCFC and win their second MLS Cup

SOCCER: MAY 03 MLS - DC United at Timbers
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Hudson River Blue asked Sam Svilar of Stumptown Footy to give us some friendly insight into the Portland Timbers, New York City FC’s opponents in the 2021 MLS Cup Final on Saturday.

Portland Timbers captain and MLS legend Diego Valeri is one of the best attacking midfielders the league has ever seen, and stands at the center of the team’s enduring success; Felipe Mora led the team with 11 goals in the regular season, and is the sharp point of Portland’s attack; and forward Sebastián Blanco had nine goals and six assists this year. What other players should we look out for this Saturday?

The Timbers have shown some surprising depth over the course of this playoff run. The players you mentioned, especially Blanco, have been the focal point, yes. But Portland has so many different offensive weapons that have contributed this season. Dairon Asprilla is enjoying a career year, and he will be coming into the final fresh after missing the conference final due to suspension. In addition, Yimmi Chará has been steady and dangerous in the playoffs as well, being a constant secondary or tertiary threat in attacks.

Besides the starters, many other players have stepped up. Forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda has a ridiculous shot conversion rate, and newcomer Santiago Moreno had a breakout game last week, after showing well during the regular season. The status of Blanco after the injury he suffered in Colorado is a question mark, but he was available off the bench last week. Even if he doesn’t start, the Timbers showed they have the depth to still be dangerous without him.

Beyond just pure attackers, Portland likes to utilize fluidity in their attacking lines. Left-back Claudio Bravo (not the Chilean one) has grown steadier and steadier as the season has gone on. Look for him to combine in attacks down the wings, and spring counterattacks himself. And don’t be surprised if central midfielder Cristhian Paredes shows up as a late runner crashing the box in the attack—he has a tendency to do so this season. Going the other way, Diego Chará has proven that he is elite at shielding the backline and breaking up attacks, and he will be called upon to do so again in the final.

The Portland Timbers have the second-oldest squad in MLS, and many of the key attacking players are too old to go on TikTok: Diego Valeri is 35, Diego Chará is 35, Sebastián Blanco is 33, Yimmi Chará is 30: They shouldn’t be in training, they should be playing canasta. Is that a concern heading into the MLS Cup Final, a game that extends the regular season by five weeks?

I mean, I strive to ever be as good at anything at 35 as Diego Chará is at playing soccer. It seems like he takes personal offense whenever anyone asks the question “has he lost a step?” and turns around and puts in another stellar year. He will play as long as he wants, and by all evidence will be able to do so at a pretty high level.

The age factor has of course been a concern this season, especially when it comes to Sebastian Blanco. He started the season recovering from an ACL tear, and whether it was due to his age or other factors, it took a while for him to get back to 100%. Diego Valeri, deity that he is, has also seen his role become diminished, most likely due to his age.

But as I mentioned in relation to Chará, that battle with Father Time does not appear to be a major barrier to this team. That amount of veteran experience and leadership is one of the biggest reasons the Timbers are in the MLS Cup final, and that savvy will be something they will lean on in the match on Saturday. So if anything, the age factor has been a benefit for the Timbers this offseason.

The Timbers ended the season with a respectable 55 points, but took only nine out of 15 in the last five games of the season. Since then, Portland beat Minnesota United at home and the Colorado Rapids away, although neither win was completely convincing. The recent 2-0 romp over Real Salt Lake at home was another matter: The Timbers dominated. What team will show up on Saturday, the Timbers that struggled against Colorado or the Timbers that pulled apart Salt Lake?

I would push back a little bit against the first two playoff performances not being convincing. There were stretches in both games where Portland was playing some of their best soccer of the entire year. Yes, the first halves in both games were shaky—against Colorado especially. But in both games Portland was able to weather the storm, and make some smart adjustments and stifle their opponents. In both games they were generally the better team in the second half—against Colorado especially.

I think those games, along with last week’s win over RSL, are indicative of this Timbers team playing their best soccer when it counts. When their backs are against the wall, they are able to flip a switch. They revived their season with an eight-game unbeaten stretch in the late summer, and while they stumbled a bit coming out of the November international break, the Timbers finished out the stretch run strong.

Giovanni Savarese has proven himself as an excellent tournament coach, and he has had this side locked in and focused throughout the playoff run. They’ve stepped up time and time again, and I fully expect them to come out ready for the final.

Providence Park is one of the great historic soccer venues anywhere in the world and the most atmospheric in North America: It dates to the 1890s, the original scythe-shaped grandstand opened in 1926, and when the Timbers Army is in full voice it’s a citadel, easily the most forbidding stadium in MLS for visiting teams. But the field is turf—what gives? Everything grows so nicely in Portland, so why the plastic grass?

The reason things grow nicely in Portland is a big reason that they still use artificial turf: The large amount of precipitation the region gets on a regular basis. The streak of days with rain in Portland, combined with a still subpar drainage system beneath the field, can potentially combine to turn a natural grass Providence Park into a mud pit very quickly. With the general cooler temperatures of the PNW combined with the large amount of rainfall, maintaining a natural grass field would be an extensive and expensive endeavor- and one that team owner Merritt Paulson wasn’t quite ready to take on when the team entered the league in 2011.

There are a few other factors as well—other sports teams sometimes rent out Providence Park, such as high school and college American football, and it is more efficient to not have to work on and recover the field after that much wear and tear.

But for whatever the reason, it is a point of contention among both locals and national media types, and is something that has been a barrier to vaulting the city of Portland into that top tier of cities in consideration for things like USWNT or USMNT games. And it is something that Paulson has acknowledged, and he’s indicated that it’s a matter of when, not if, natural grass gets installed in the stadium. So the real stuff will be coming… eventually.

What is Portland’s X-factor, the secret weapon that doesn’t show up in team stats but that can change games?

One of the X-factors for Portland all season which hasn’t gotten a ton of coverage has been the play of their goalkeeper, Steve Clark. His goals-against average was torpedoed a bit by early-season blowouts, but since the midseason he has been one of the top-performing goalkeepers in the league. He has been a huge factor in Portland’s playoff run, making some key saves to either keep games close or keep opponents from finding momentum. I suspect he will be called upon again to do so in the final.

An X-factor off the field is, of course, the Timbers Army and the Providence Park crowd. Last weekend’s Western Conference Final was the loudest I have ever heard the stadium, and it lifted and energized the players. I expect the place to be even louder this Saturday, and for that to be fuel for the team.