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Roundtable predictions: NYCFC vs Portland in the 2021 MLS Cup

Hudson River Blue’s panel of writers preview the most important game in NYCFC history

MLS: Portland Timbers at New York City FC
Taty Castellanos will be back in the lineup for the MLS Cup.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the MLS Cup edition of the Hudson River Blue Roundtable, in which Arjun Ahuja, Noah Kassell-Yung, and Oliver Strand will do their biased best to handicap the title game that will be played this Saturday between New York City FC and the Portland Timbers.

First, let’s talk about the last game. NYCFC defeated the Union, but the NYCFC squad looked terrible in the first half—that game was saved by the subs who came on in the 58th minute. What do you take away from that performance?

Arjun Ahuja: It’s honestly tough to take away much. Like you said, the game was very ugly. I thought it was by design by Jim Curtain. I think that the subs made that type of impact just shows the type of firepower that NYCFC have off the bench and the same threat looms for Saturday.

Noah Kassell-Yung: My biggest takeaway is in line with one of the most praised aspects of this NYCFC team: depth. It was impressive to see three substitutes affect the game so strongly. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Gudmundur Thórarinsson, and Talles Magno looked extremely sharp and ended up winning the game, so shout out to the players and coaches for that.

Oliver Strand: I was shaken by that game to be honest. At first it was like a win that didn’t feel like a win. Since then I’ve come to appreciate NYCFC’s grit, which hasn’t always been evident in this team. It’s good to know the players can dig deep and get it done.

What lineup will NYCFC manager Ronny Deila play on Saturday against the Portland Timbers?

NKY: I would expect to see the same lineup against the Timbers that played against the Union plus of course Taty Castellanos. Jesús Medina and Malte Amundsen could possibly be replaced as both put in poor performances against Philly. Tajouri-Shradi and Thórarinsson both had extremely impactful performances off the bench but I would still not be surprised if the starting lineup stays the same.

AA: Has to be more of the same, no? Johnson, Gray, Chanot, Callens, Amundsen, Sands, Morales, Maxi, Santi, Medina, and Taty leading the line. I would love to see Talles Magno or Thiago get some time for Medina but I don’t think it will happen.

OS: Agree, the same lineup that faced Atlanta United and the New England Revolution. Go with what you know.

Out of those players, who are your greatest concerns? On the other hand, who do you expect to step up?

AA: I would love to see Talles Magno or Thiago get some time for Medina but I don’t think it will happen. The game, such is the case with most games, will be won or lost in midfield. I’m looking forward to seeing Sands’s engine win second balls all over the pitch.

OS: I’m very worried about Amundsen and Sands after that last performance, maybe Gray. Then again, those three were some of the brightest lights of these playoffs, a big part of why NYCFC is paying for the cup. Santi needs to get back to his New England form. As for who is going to step up, that has to be Taty. He’ll be the most dangerous goal threat on the field, and for good reason.

NKY: Sands has been shaky at times in the middle of the park. He has been one of the most consistent players this season, but recently he’s been progressing the ball higher up the pitch and that has resulted in some dangerous turnovers. In order for NYCFC to have success Sands needs to have his best game possible in the middle of the park.

On the flip side I expect Portland to have to face an extremely hungry Taty. I believe that Taty feels that he has to avenge his personal error and repay the team and fans with a clinical and aggressive performance paired with the MLS Cup.

How will NYCFC play the Timbers? Cede possession but dominate the game, like they did against Atlanta? Or match and outplay the Timbers, like against New England?

NKY: I expect NYCFC to have the larger portion of possession on Saturday as they did in both their wins against New England and Philadelphia. The responsibility will be on Sands and Alfredo Moralez to get the ball to Maxi and Santi like they did against the Revs if NYCFC want to succeed with the ball.

There were also small portions of the game against the Revs where NYCFC went long which resulted in a few good chances. It’s positive knowing that with or without the ball NYCFC have tactics that have worked this playoff run.

OS: If Sebastián Blanco is fit and starting then NYCFC will have to play Portland like they did New England, which also had multiple scoring threats: Neutralize Blanco and striker Felipe Mora, mute Christhian Paredes in the midfield. If Blanco doesn’t take the field, or if he has a bad game, it’ll open up for NYCFC.

AA: I think they’ll have to weather the storm a bit. Which should be expected in a Cup Final on the road, but if they settle in they should look to dominate through the middle of the park and feed their star man and Golden Boot Winner.

What is it about playing the Timbers that gives you concern?

OS: Earlier this week I would have said playing in Providence Park, which is a citadel. I’m going to amend that and say it’s playing in Providence Park in 45-degree rain. The conditions will make NYCFC’s technical play difficult to pull off.

AA: Playing on the road in a game of this magnitude is always a disadvantage, their crowd will no doubt play a part in the game. I hope NYCFC can come out organized and not concede an early goal.

NKY: The MLS Cup experience and home-field advantage. This is Portland’s third time on this stage in the last seven years. They have experience that we simply do not have. Providence Park’s incredible atmosphere will undoubtedly create a strong advantage for the Timbers.

What is it about playing the Timbers that gives you hope?

AA: Their midfield might not yet be at full strength, City should look to create an overload there.

NKY: The potential absence of Blanco definitely gives me some hope. While his replacements have stepped up impressively, his impact is integral to Portland’s success so far this season.

OS: Portland’s defense isn’t as good as NYCFC’s attack, and Portland’s attack isn’t as good as New England’s. Mora and Blanco aren’t the same caliber as Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou, ditto Paredes and Chará versus Carles Gil and Tajon Buchanan.

What is it about NYCFC that gives you concern?

NKY: The first half against Philadelphia gives me the most concern for sure. Even though we did not have Castellanos, his absence does not excuse the poor performance. If NYCFC were to play that same way against Portland, it would be extremely difficult to win.

OS: I agree. If the NYCFC that played in Philadelphia shows up–even the second-half NYCFC with the super-subs–it will be hard to win.

AA: The major injuries to both Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm are still very pressing. Both those players are sorely missed and it remains to be seen if their replacements have one more magical performance left in them.

What is it about NYCFC that gives you hope?

OS: The chemistry I saw on the field those first two playoff games. I was in the stands for the Atalanta match, and you could feel it in the air. If that returns, the team is unbeatable.

AA: Taty Castellanos. He scored in the last six games he has played in. Alongside him, Maxi Moralez is testing father time. Santi and Maxi should pull the strings on what should be a night full of celebrations.

NKY: The team’s resilience. That’s what gives me the most hope. We have seen NYCFC win without possession, pressing and dumping long balls for Taty to chase. We have seen NYCFC dominate possession, create chances, and outplay the best team in MLS away from home. And we have seen NYCFC pull out a win against a motivated Philly, in a hostile environment when the game was not going in City’s favor. While I think NYCFC will be the underdog come kickoff, I believe a title can be won for NYC.

Prediction time: Final score? Man of the Match?

AA: NYCFC wins 3-1. Taty scores a brace, gets Man of the Match and earns an everlasting place in all of our hearts.

OS: NYCFC wins 2-1. City will come out strong, Portland will score and make our hearts sink, then Taty will score one goal, play a role in another. The Man from Mendoza will be Man of the Match.

NKY: I think it will be simultaneously a messy and beautiful game. I expect NYCFC and Portland to share long sequences of exciting offense with tackles flying in left and right. In the end NYCFC will outclass Portland to a 3-1.

The obvious choice for Man of the Match in an NYCFC win would be Taty Castellanos, but I personally predict that Maxi will take the honors. I think that the 34-year-old Argentine will perform at his highest ability, and pass his way to MLS Cup glory.