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This Week in MLS – November 30, 2015

This Week in MLS – November 30, 2015
  • And then there were two: Portland Timbers, Columbus Crew SC ready to battle for MLS Cup
  • Darlington Nagbe, Caleb Porter, Argentine investment lift Portland Timbers to first MLS Cup appearance
  • Kei Kamara, Gregg Berhalter, young talent gives Columbus Crew SC shot at second trophy
  • Sebastian Giovinco, Kei Kamara, Benny Feilhaber up for Landon Donovan MVP honors
  • Krisztian Nemeth, Sebastian Giovinco finalists for 2015 AT&T Goal of the Year
  • Tentative MLS Cup media schedule now available; credential applications due tomorrow
  • Check It Out, Quotables, Sweet Tweets
And then there were two: Portland Timbers, Columbus Crew SC ready to battle for MLS Cup
 
Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers survived frenzied finishes in Sunday night’s Conference Championships to secure spots in the 2015 MLS Cup final and earn a chance to grab a 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League berth. The match heads to MAPFRE Stadium – Major League Soccer’s first soccer-specific stadium – for the second time, with kickoff set for 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, Dec. 6 (ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMás, TSN, RDS2).
 
It’s a fitting finale for Major League Soccer’s 20th season. Crew SC, one of the league’s charter clubs, was long an embodiment of MLS 1.0. However, following Anthony Precourt’s purchase of the team in 2013, and the subsequent rebrand and infusion of young talent from both home and abroad, it has re-emerged as a model and modern franchise. This marks Columbus’ first appearance in MLS Cup since 2008, when it topped the New York Red Bulls in the championship match. The Timbers, meanwhile, define MLS 3.0. Backed by a world-class supporters group in the Timbers Army and energized by ambitious scouting abroad, Portland has set a new standard for American soccer clubs. In only its fifth MLS season, the Timbers are making their first MLS Cup appearance. Portland is the first Cascadia team to get a shot to take home the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
 
In many ways, this is an old guard versus new guard matchup.
 
On the field: expect fireworks. Both clubs will likely employ an attacking mindset from the opening whistle. Columbus finished the regular season with 58 goals – 22 from Golden Boot runner-up Kei Kamara - second only to the New York Red Bulls (62). Since Caleb Porter made a pivotal formation adjustment - shifting Darlington Nagbe inside and moving one of his defensive midfielders - the Timbers attack has exploded with 18 goals in going unbeaten over their last eight games.
 
Darlington Nagbe, Caleb Porter, Argentine investment lift Portland Timbers to first MLS Cup appearance
 
Darlington Nagbe hopes to cap off memorable year with MLS Cup trophy
 
The 2015 season has been one a memorable one for Darlington Nagbe. Long heralded as one of Major League Soccer’s most promising players, Nagbe is starting to shed that ‘promising’ label in favor of an ‘elite’ one. Timbers head coach Caleb Porter pushed Nagbe inside from the right wing in the weeks leading into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Since then, Nagbe has discovered the consistency that long evaded his game, asserting himself as a box-to-box player who can create and defend at a top-flight level. After securing his U.S. citizenship in September, the Liberia native was quickly capped by the United States National Team during its opening pair of 2018 World Cup Qualifying matches in October. A win on Sunday would be the icing on the cake for a player Jurgen Klinsmann has already dubbed a “great fit” for the USA.
 
Portland’s Argentine pipeline paying palpable dividends
 
Several MLS clubs have developed preferences for where they discover personnel abroad. Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s roster features four Uruguayans. New York City FC has four Spaniards, Toronto FC employs four Frenchman, and Orlando City SC enlists four Englishman. For the Portland Timbers, it’s Argentina. In total, the Timbers had five Argentines on their roster this season (it now has four). No other MLS club had more than three. The club has fostered a welcoming atmosphere for its Argentine imports and it has translated onto the field. All four – Diego Valeri, Norberto Paparatto, Lucas Melano, and Maximiliano Urruti – logged minutes in Sunday’s second leg. While Valeri has become a face of the club, the club brought Melano in this summer, and the investment paid off when he scored one of, if not the most important – and most impressive - goals in Timbers history in the 95th minute.
 
"There have been a lot of Argentines that have come to the league in the past couple years and it's something that has been getting more noticed in Argentina," Melano told The Oregonian in July, through an interpreter. "It's a league that is well-regarded. I didn't doubt it for a second when I had the opportunity to come here."
 
Road Warriors: Caleb Porter leads MLS’ best road team into familiar territory
 
Since the highest-seeded MLS Cup finalist began hosting the match in 2012, home teams are a perfect 3-0. That won’t faze the Portland Timbers. Portland finished the regular season tied with Vancouver Whitecaps FC for most road wins in MLS with seven. The Timbers carried their road success into the playoffs, dispatching Whitecaps FC, 2-0, at BC Place in the semifinal, before punching their ticket to the final with Sunday night’s 2-2 draw in Dallas. Ohio is also familiar territory for a slew of Timbers. Caleb Porter served as the University of Akron head coach for seven years (2006-2012), leading the Zips to six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances including the school’s first national championship in 2010. When Porter took the Timbers coaching job in 2013, he reunited with three former players – Darlington Nagbe, Ben Zemanski and Michael Nanchoff. Nagbe was a member of Akron’s 2010 national championship squad and Zemanski was onboard for the team’s second-place finish in the 2009 tournament, while Nanchoff was a part of both teams. Per ESPN’s Paul Carr, Porter can join Bruce Arena (LA Galaxy, University of Virginia), Sigi Schmid (Columbus Crew, UCLA), and Steve Sampson (LA Galaxy, Santa Clara) as the only coaches to win an MLS Cup title and a NCAA Division I championship.
 
Kei Kamara, Gregg Berhalter, young talent gives Columbus Crew SC shot at second MLS Cup
 
Columbus Crew SC head coach and technical director Gregg Berhalter shaping the club on and off the field
 
After a successful playing career that included stints in Europe and multiple trophies with the LA Galaxy, Gregg Berhalter became the most prominent U.S. products to manage in Europe when he was named head coach of Swedish side Hammarby on Dec. 12, 2011. Although Berhalter left after his second season with the club, he quickly found his next gig: technical director and head coach of Columbus Crew SC. Crew SC has quickly adapted to its head coach’s possession-oriented style and was the second highest scoring offense in MLS during the regular season. As technical director, Berhalter has made changes to bolster the club’s present and future outlooks. In 2015, Crew SC identified and signed key contributors Kei Kamara, Cedrick Mabwati, Gaston Sauro and Harrison Afful. And at the end of the regular season, Crew SC announced that the academy at all levels will play the same aggressive and possession-oriented tactics as the first team. Berhalter has made big strides with Crew SC in only his second season full season in charge. A second MLS Cup trophy would further highlight Columbus’ bright future ahead.
 
Development of young players paying off for Crew SC
 
After making only six starts in his first two seasons in MLS, Ethan Finlay has gone on to start 55 regular season games since Gregg Berhalter took charge full-time at the start of the 2014 season. During that time, Finlay has emerged as one of the MLS’ most dangerous wingers, notching 23 goals and 20 assists.
 
Finlay’s teammate Wil Trapp was among the most established young players in the United States when he signed a Homegrown contract with Crew SC in 2012. In his three professional seasons, Trapp has cemented himself as one of the crown jewels of Columbus’ growing stable of young talent, having been named vice-captain of the club  at the beginning of this season as a 22-year-old. In September, Trapp was named the No. 4 player on MLSSoccer.com’s “24 Under 24” rankings. Due to his exploits on the field, Trapp was named the U.S. U-23 captain during qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics. 
 
Another young, key contributor to Crew SC’s successful season is left back Waylon Francis. The Costa Rican international joined the club in 2014 from perennial CONCACAF Champions League participants Herediano, and was an unused squad player for the Costa Rica’s successful 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign.  In his two seasons in MLS, Francis has been one of the most potent fullbacks in the league, chipping into the attack with 13 assists in 52 regular season appearances.
 
Crew SC forward Kei Kamara’s improbable journey to stardom
 
After being selected ninth overall at the 2006 MLS SuperDraft by Columbus Crew SC, Kei Kamara bounced around the league, making stops with the San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City. It was at SKC where Kamara gained a reputation for being a target forward with the ability to score goals – 38 in total. English clubs took notice and Kamara joined English Premier League side Norwich City on loan in 2013. After scoring one goal in 11 appearances for Norwich City, Kamara then joined Championship side Middlesbrough, where he would go on to score four goals in 25 appearances for the club. Kamara suited up for Crew SC in 2015 and would have his finest season yet as a professional, tying the league-high in goals scored (22) with Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, while adding eight assists. Kamara has come a long way after escaping Sierra Leone’s civil war as a child, to become the focal point for Crew SC establish imself as one of Major League Soccer’s brightest talents.
 
Sebastian Giovinco, Kei Kamara, Benny Feilhaber up for Landon Donovan MVP honors
 
Major League Soccer will announce the winner of the Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player Award on Tuesday, Dec. 2. This year’s candidates include Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, Columbus Crew SC’s Kei Kamara, and Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber.
 
TFC purchased Giovinco from Italian powerhouse Juventus in January, and the small forward submitted arguably the greatest individual season in MLS history. He shattered club and league records across the board, most notably setting the all-time mark for most combined goals and assists (22 goals, 16 assists), also securing both the Audi Golden Boot and Newcomer of the Year. Giovinco’s performance propelled him back onto the Italian national team for the first time in a year. Giovinco was a one-man highlight reel and the man aptly nicknamed the Atomic Ant has garnered superhero status in Toronto.  
 
Although Kei Kamara didn’t win the Audi Golden Boot (losing on the assists tiebreaker to Giovinco), he turned in one of the greatest pure goal-scoring campaigns in MLS history. Kamara scored all 22 of his tallies from the run of play. Only Stern John (Columbus Crew, 1998, 26 goals) , Mamadou Diallo (Tampa Bay Mutiny, 2000, 26 goals) and Roy Lassiter (1996, 27 goals) have scored more non-penalty goals. In his first season back from stints with Norwich City and Middlesbrough, Kamara powered Crew SC to a fourth-place finish on the league table. In his eight prior MLS seasons, Kamara had never scored more than 11 goals.
 
At 30 years old, Benny Feilhaber had a career renaissance in 2015. The midfielder more than doubled his previous career-highs in goals (10 / 4) and assists (15 / 6), while also setting new marks in games played (32), minutes (2,731), and shots (48). His 15 assists were only one shy of Giovinco’s league-leading 16 helpers. Feilhaber’s performance propelled Sporting Kansas City to a fourth-place finish in its first season in the Western Conference.
 
Krisztian Nemeth, Sebastian Giovinco finalists for 2015 AT&T Goal of the Year
 
Voting for the Final of the 2015 AT&T Goal of the Year contest is open now through Tuesday, Dec. 1. 64 of this season’s best goals - 33 AT&T Goal of the Week winners and 31 goals picked by the MLSsoccer.com editorial staff – were chosen for the first time ever via bracket, with the 64 goals going up head-to-head against one another until a champion is chosen. The 2015 AT&T Goal of the Year winner will be announced on Thursday, Dec. 3.
 
This year’s final features breath-taking goals from two MLS newcomers: Sporting Kansas City’s Krisztian Nemeth and Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco. Nemeth’s sublime solo effort outlasted Obafemi Martins’ jaw-dropping golazo to reach the final, while Giovinco’s single-handed dismantling of the New York Red Bulls’ backline beat out Real Salt Lake’s floor-is-lava set piece goal for a spot in the championship round. 
 
2015 AT&T Goal of the Year Voting Schedule
  • Championship Round: Nov. 30-Dec. 2 (VOTE HERE)
 
For more information on 2015 AT&T Goal of the Year voting, click here.
 
Tentative MLS Cup media schedule now available; credential applications due tomorrow
 
Media planning to cover 2015 MLS Cup can now apply for credentials by CLICKING HERE. Without exception, credential applications must be received by Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. ET. Any questions should be directed to the 2015 MLS Cup accreditation officer Paola García, Paola.Garcia@MLSsoccer.com.
 
A tentative media schedule can be found here. All times and locations are subject to change.
 
Check It Out
 
D.C. United: A Look Back at 2015
New York Red Bulls: RED BULLS INSIDER: Episode 9
 
Quotables
 
"This is a great moment for this club. This is our first trophy, but we want the biggest trophy and we have one more game still to achieve that."
Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter after winning the Western Conference Championship
 
"I think sometimes it just felt like the only people that believed in our cause were us. I'm just really proud to how we've responded to all that pressure. It's not easy. We easily could have given up and called it a day in the game at Salt Lake, but we won that game... We continued to win and here we are now."
Portland Timbers defender Nat Borchers on the club’s hot finish to end the regular season on the way to its first MLS Cup appearance
 
"I think for us to be able to give back to our fans that have stuck with us through thick and thin makes it all the more special. We have one more step to go to really feel good about the season."
Portland Timbers midfielder Jack Jewsbury on the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup
 
“It’s going to be very, very exciting to have a chance to win MLS Cup in front of our fans at home.”
Columbus Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp on playing the 2015 MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium
Title shot awaits (Columbus Dispatch)
 
“That was tough. I was saying, ‘No way can they get two goals in the last two minutes (of stoppage).’ I don’t know how I wound up on the post where the ball was. I tried not to let my legs turn to spaghetti.”
Columbus Crew SC forward Kei Kamara on sticking out the final moments of the match against New York Red Bulls
 
"I'm proud of my team. I'm proud of the way the guys managed this game. But we're not finished. We have our sights set on next week. The guys will enjoy tonight and then get back to work on Tuesday."
Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter on enjoying the Eastern Conference Championship victory and getting prepared for MLS Cup
 
Sweet Tweets
 
Kei Kamara (@keikamara):
 
Nat Borchers (@natborchers): Cup Bound and Down! Congrats Portland!  Thanks for continuing to believe in us.  @TimbersFC @TimbersArmy #onemoretogo https://t.co/kOwiZrnpyy
 
Ethan Finlay (@EthanFinlay13): 1 more to go... #ForTheCup #ForColumbus
 
Diego Valeri (@DiegoDv8): Campeones carajo!
Thank you everyone for the support. This is yours. Rose city 'til die
 
Alvas Powell (@powellalvas): give God thanks for this special day one more to go PTFC
 
Justin Meram (@JustinMeram): Eastern Conference Champions! Now it's time for MLS Cup! #Blessed