With near identical line-ups from the December championship date and a near similar start, the reigning MLS Cup champions Portland Timbers welcomed the MLS Cup runners-up Columbus Crew to Providence Park on Sunday afternoon. By the end of the day, the story of MLS Cup would repeat itself with Portland securing three points on a 2-1 win. The victory marked Caleb Porter’s first ever win in March as an MLS head coach.
Portland started in a 4-3-3 formation, Columbus in a 4-2-3-1. Both teams played their star players, including the Crew’s 22-goal man and newest DP, Kei Kamara. Though Kamara would not repeat his goal-scoring ways of 2015, the game started in a nearly catastrophic way as it seemed the ghosts of MLS Cup 2015 might be around to haunt Columbus. Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark collected the ball in his box just three minutes in. Portland’s Diego Valeri came charging at Clark and almost ripped the ball from his feet, similar to how Valeri scored the first goal of MLS Cup twenty-two seconds into that game.
Hectic pace from both clubs
Portland and Columbus exchanged possession of the ball in a hectic-paced first twenty minutes. Portland’s first dangerous sniff at goal came in the seventh minute, with Liam Ridgewell coming very close to putting one in the back of the net from a header on a Valeri corner kick.
After more possession exchange, Kamara came close for Columbus. After a quick Columbus throw in, Tony Tchani collected the ball in Portland’s final third and sent it through to a streaking Kamara. From just outside the six yard box, Kamara took a left-footed shot that went into the outside-netting of Adam Kwarasey’s goal; a shot with which Kamara could have and should have done better.
Back on the other end, just three minutes later, Portland found their breakthrough. Dairon Asprilla found himself taken down by the Crew’s Harrison Afful, who had an otherwise strong game for Columbus. Perhaps a soft-call for the foul, Valeri nevertheless stepped up to take the kick from just beyond penalty area. With a powerful knuckleball shot, the bending ball zipped by the entire Crew defense, several Portland players running towards goal, and past Clark for the Timbers first goal of the new season.
Though Columbus saw a few glimpses at goal, the rest of the first half belonged to Portland. Asprilla and Valeri had several chances on goal, two of which Asprilla arguably should have put away. Credit must be given to Clark whose several key saves were the main reason Portland was not able to increase its 1-0 advantage after 45 minutes.
Second half much the same
After a non-eventful start to the second-half, Portland looked to take back control of the game in the 50th minute. After some miscommunication from the Crew defenders, Valeri took a shot just outside the eighteen, putting his shot just a few inches beyond the goal. This episode seemed to ignite Portland as the team heavily attacked the Crew’s final third over the next several minutes. However, Columbus dug in and fought hard, with the game eventually returning back to the hectic pace of the first half. As such, both sides were once again exchanging counter-attacking blows.
The hour mark saw the Crew almost tie things up. Afful played a very dangerous ball over the top of the Timbers defense, landing at the feet of an unsuspecting Kamara. A quick flick from Kamara saw the ball come very close to trickling into the Timbers’ goal with an outstretched Kwarasey getting just enough to preserve Portland’s single goal lead.
That lead, however, would only last for another eight minutes. In the 68th minute, Columbus would find the break-through they had tirelessly fought for all game. On a classic give and go between Federico Higuain and Ethan Finlay, Higuain received the ball from Finley, who played it just a step behind Higuain on the return pass. In what will surely be a goal of the week candidate, Higuain showed his immense talent by smacking the ball into Portland’s goal off of a perfectly executed bicycle kicks, bringing the game to even terms at 1-1.
Team goal leads to win
For the next ten minutes, Columbus had total control of the game, save for the occasional but ineffective Portland counter-attack. That is, until Fernando Adi put Portland ahead with 11 minutes remaining.
In a play that started with an Asprilla pass to Valeri and ended with an Asprilla shot at Adi's feet, Portland slowed the game down just enough to confuse the Columbus defense. Looking like he was going to control the ball and head to goal, Asprilla instead played the ball back to Valeri, who then worked it out to Diego Chara. After a couple of touches, Chara found Lucas Melano across the field, who then played it back across to Asprilla. Asprilla took a chance at goal, with his errant shot falling to a wide open Adi. Adi completed the play by tapping the ball in Columbus’ goal with the outside of his left foot.
Thanks to some strong defensive play and an 84th minute Higuain shot being saved by the same post that played a vital role in the now famous SKC/Portland shootout in last year’s playoffs, the Timbers and Crew began 2016 just as the they finished 2015 – a 2-1 score line with Portland again taking the spoils.
Columbus returns home next take on Philadelphia on Saturday, March 12. Meanwhile, Portland heads south to face Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday, March 13.