2021 MLS Cup tactical preview: Portland Timbers vs NYCFC
Photo: Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Portland Timbers will host NYCFC in the 2021 MLS Cup final at Providence Park. 

While both teams reached the championship match seeded fourth in their respective conferences, that is where the similarities end. With that in mind, VAVEL takes a look at how each side will look to approach the MLS showpiece.

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  • How Portland will approach the match

The Timbers are most comfortable when they can play on the counterattack, but in the Western Conference Final against Real Salt Lake, they varied from this approach and pressed RSL with their collective team speed.

Inside of five minutes, Portland were in front and despite backing off of their attacking approach, they still controlled possession for much of the match. Given the chance to play vertically, they took full advantage and doubled the lead.

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According to Second Spectrum, a website that tracks advanced statistics, Portland are the second-most direct team in the league when a possession ends with a shot, behind only the New York Red Bulls. They also have a transition rate in conversion of 15.3%, third best in MLS.

They'll look to split the NYCFC defense open when in transition and they have been able to take full advantage recently without settling for crosses at the play's conclusion. What the Timbers do so well is get multiple runners off the ball at any chance they can.

What game plan Portland comes out with for the final will be fascinating to watch. Do they revert back to the team that generally lays back and wait to hit on the counter or do they try to set the tone and press the way they did against RSL?

The danger in sitting back is that NYCFC is a high-possession team that has multiple skill players all over the field. They pass beautifully and when on the ball, they are the best team in the league. How Giovanni Savarese sets the tone will go a long way towards determining the outcome.

  • How NYCFC will look to set the pace

With the Boys In Blue, you know how they'll play: press, try to win the ball back as high up the field as possible and send runners into gaps they find when in the attacking third, a strategy that has paid off beautifully during their run to the final.

They were taken out of their style and made uncomfortable in the first half of the Eastern Conference Final against Philadelphia. The Union successfully pulled NYCFC towards the ball, but once Ronny Deila made a trio of substitutions, they got back to their usual style.

The Eastern Conference champs spent the final half-hour pinning Philadelphia back and they turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory, doing this without Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, who was suspended.

The Argentine made 824 attacking runs this season, most in the league according to Second Spectrum. This was most evident in the East semis against New England, when he scored in extra time.

What makes it so hard to defend NYCFC is that they utilize multiple runners, so you never know where they might attack next. Their pressing skills were on full display, finishing in the top five in every pressing metric, with Castellanos' 681 presses up the pitch by far the most in MLS.

The biggest factor in the final will be if they can control the tempo of the match, forcing Portland to play they want to as they try to push the Timbers back into a shell, throw runners into the 18 and dominate the center of midfield.

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  • Final outlook

On paper, NYCFC are a bad matchup for Portland. When playing well, there isn't a team in the league that can match them, but the Timbers have the experience of being here before, possible rain and wind in the forecast and their proficiency on restarts could neutralize the Boys In Blue.

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