Truths and a dare: Storylines to watch in the MLS Cup final
By now, you may have heard that Major League Soccer's championship game is this weekend.
By now, you may have heard that Major League Soccer's championship game is this weekend.
Yeah, I did hear something about that, but I forget who's in it. Remind me?
Portland and Columbus.
Okay, do I know any of the players?
Portland's Darlington Nagbe. He's good, a real creative type. Just made his U.S. national team debut too.
You're right, I did see that, and he is good. Anybody else?
Diego Valeri of Portland, he's a wonderful playmaker. Columbus has two dynamic attackers: Kei Kamara tied for the league lead in goals this year, and Federico Higuaín sets him up.
Gonzalo Higuaín plays for Columbus? I thought he played for Real Madrid.
No, he plays for Napoli – that's in Italy, in case you didn't know that either. He hasn't played for Real Madrid in two years. And I said Federico. He's Gonzalo's brother.
Oh. Well then. So when's the game?
4 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, UniMás, TSN1 and 4 and RDS2.
ESPN? Not bad. But that's when the Eagles are playing the Patriots. I'm going to watch that, even though the Eagles are worse than the 76ers at this point. And what are all those other channels?
There's no way to get around the fact that this year's MLS Cup final is severely lacking in star power and big-market buzz. Nor is it easy to make the case for why you should watch it without coming across as a cheerleader, which I don't want to be.
Yet if you're willing to at least give the thing a try, you might find some compelling characters – and just as importantly, you might find a decent soccer game too.
To set the stage for Major League Soccer's 20th championship game, I sought out some people who know the league better than almost anyone else. In this piece, you'll hear from five of the top voices at the U.S. and Canadian television networks that broadcast MLS:
Adrian Healey, ESPN play-by-play announcer
Alexi Lalas, Fox Sports color analyst
Iván Kasanzew, Univision sideline reporter
Luke Wileman, TSN play-by-play announcer
Patrick Leduc, RDS studio analyst
I asked them what they see in Portland and Columbus, and how they think Sunday's matchup will play out. And I asked them to be honest. They were.
The conventional wisdom about cup finals is that they tend to be defensive, fear-driven affairs. Yet both Portland and Columbus have played open, attacking soccer throughout this year's playoffs. Healey expects that to happen again Sunday.
"For neutrals or people who are not familiar with the league, who are looking to see what the league is all about, these are two teams that will play some of the best football you're going to see at the moment in MLS," he said. "They are not just grind it out, hit a team on the counter-attack types of operations, which we do see a fair amount of in this league and in other leagues. I think that's to be celebrated."
Wileman sees the matchup as a potential lesson for those who think stylish soccer only comes from spending big money on talent.
"I think people, if they give the game a chance, will see two really entertaining, attack-minded teams who have showed that there are other ways to build in Major League Soccer - not just by going out and spending massive amounts of money on players," he said. "And two teams that I think, as we saw in the last round and throughout the playoffs, are willing to go out and have a good go at teams and not sit back. I really don't think it will be that sort of cagey game that sometimes cup finals can be."
The men who are ultimately responsible for both clubs' quality of play are the head coaches, Portland's Caleb Porter and Columbus' Gregg Berhalter. Both are cut from a similar cloth to the one that's seen across much of MLS right now: young North Americans (or young foreigners who've come to call North America home) who know the league's intricacies and are striving to make their own marks in a league they feel is their own.
Yet while the cloth may be similar to their contemporaries – think Peter Vermes, Jason Kreis, Jesse Marsch, Jim Curtin, etc. - Berhalter and Porter have spruced up their résumés with some noteworthy custom tailoring.
Berhalter differs from the names mentioned above in that he didn't make a name for himself by playing in MLS – at least not until the very end of his career. The northern New Jersey native spent most of his playing days in Europe, suiting up for six teams across three countries between 1994 and 2009. He also performed with distinction for the U.S. national team, earning 44 caps and places on the 2002 and 2006 World Cup squads.
In 2009, he came back to America to sign with the Los Angeles Galaxy. After three years, he retired and joined the team's coaching staff. Then, in 2012, he won a prize no American ever had before: a head coaching job with a European club. It wasn't a big team – Hammarby of Sweden – but it was still a big deal.
Berhalter only lasted one season in Europe, but that line on his résumé made MLS teams take notice. Columbus hired him in 2013, and it didn't take long for Berhalter to start mixing his Europe-honed savvy with American know-how.
The payoff came this year: Columbus earned the Eastern Conference's second-best record, ousted the top-seeded New York Red Bulls, and will now host the title game on home turf. And it's all happened with some quality attacking soccer.
Because of that, Berhalter has quietly ascended into the ranks of possible replacements for Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. national team head coach. If Columbus wins Sunday, that ascent won't be so quiet anymore.
Lalas is among those who's ready to champion Berhalter's cause.
"I see Gregg as not a rising star - he's already a star as far as I'm concerned," he told me. "I would have no problem seeing Gregg Berhalter as the head coach of the national team tomorrow… I think he's still getting better, but I think he's that good."
Well. That's a headline-worthy statement if there ever was one, from a guy who certainly knows how to make them. But there's plenty of nuance in Lalas' view too.
"The way that he goes about his job, the way that he thinks about the game, his belief and confidence in his plan - even when it may be flawed, there is a real understanding of who he is and who he wants his team to be," he said. "That's not always easy in the pragmatic world of sports, and certainly in the manufactured parity of MLS."
Later in my conversation with Lalas, he offered up a comparison between Berhalter and Klinsmann. It was completely unprompted, let me note, and indeed it wasn't even in response to a question about Berhalter.
"Jurgen Klinsmann often times talks about putting players out of their comfort zone - I think what Gregg Berhalter has done on a consistent basis is put players in position to succeed, and put them in their comfort zones," Lalas said. "I'm not saying that you don't challenge players, but I think there is something for coaches to recognize what a player can do, and understand what he can't do. And certainly you work on that, but ultimately, putting them in positions - especially in a club situation where you're going to need consistency through a year - where they are comfortable, that comfortable situation translates into confidence."
I'm sure that to some of you that all sounds quite obvious. But… let's just say that I and many other folks who've made that point tend to do so wearing suits of armor, as protection against the hordes of pitchfork-toters who insist that Klinsmann is always inherently right.
Anyway, back to Berhalter, and the quiet nature of his ascent thus far. Here is a question that has to be asked: While it matters that he hasn't won anything yet, is he not mentioned in the same breath with Peter Vermes and Jason Kreis because he's in Columbus specifically? Not only is it one of MLS' smallest markets, it's the one that seems to always present itself as the small market.
"Don't kill the messenger," Lalas replied when I asked him. Request granted, at least as far as I can control anything.
"Columbus is not sexy or attractive to the general soccer audience out there, and certainly to the general sports audience out there," Lalas said. "The size of the market, the way that they have gone about their business - in comparison to others who spend a whole lot more and have much bigger names - and part of that is a philosophy in terms of how they're going about it, but also, it is just some of the realities of what they can and cannot do given the market. It doesn't mean that they can't be successful, and it doesn't mean it's not worth your time, but I completely understand why they may not have appeared on many people's radars."
Portland, however, is sexy – and not just because of all those trendy restaurants with their locally-sourced food and ethical farming and high-end coffee. I'm talking about the Timbers, and Porter is a big reason why. He's confident to the point of brash, and has a track record to back it up.
But that track record wasn't only built at Providence Park. Its foundation came from, of all places, college soccer.
Porter's pro career lasted a total of 13 games from 1998 to 2000, 11 of which were played in MLS with the San Jose Clash and Tampa Bay Mutiny. His playing career ended because of knee injuries, and soon thereafter his coaching career began as an assistant at Indiana.
In 2006, he was hired to head up the University of Akron. Almost immediately, he turned the Zips into a powerhouse: 119 wins in 154 games, a berth in the 2009 title game and the national championship a year later.
A small army of his players went on to succeed in MLS. To name just a few: Nagbe, Lancaster native Zarek Valentin, Teal Bunbury, Kofi Sarkodie, Darren Mattocks, Perry Kitchen, DeAndre Yedlin and Wil Trapp.
Porter's smashing success at Akron made him a natural fit to coach the U.S. under-23 team in the qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics. But it turned out to be a disaster, as the Americans didn't even make it out of the group stage. With the embers of that crash still smoldering, the Timbers decided to gamble that Porter could recapture his old magic.
It took a few years, but Porter has done so – and the proof isn't just in the Timbers' impressive playoff run. As Wileman told me, Porter shone most this year by showing his ability to adjust his tactics on the fly.
"They've had times when people were questioning him this year, questioning his tactics and personnel, [and] obviously they had to deal with injuries early in the season to key players," Wileman said. "But he has shown that he has the ability to adapt on the fly, and with the players he's got has been able to get the most out of them toward the end of the season. Peaking at the right time, making that tactical change with Darlington Nagbe [moving him from the right wing to a withdrawn central role]. I think that has shown that Caleb Porter is a real astute coach."
Ah, Nagbe. As I noted at the start of this piece, he's the one player in Sunday's game who has star power appeal for general soccer fans who aren't MLS wonks. Of course, everyone quoted in this piece is a MLS wonk, and most of you who are reading these words are too. So, how to get a perspective on Nagbe that isn't quite the same as most of the ones we've heard already?
I turned to Leduc, who spent a decade playing midfield for the Impact in its years before joining MLS. These days, he brings that perspective not only to his TV work, but also to columns and Impact game report cards in La Presse, Montreal's largest French-language newspaper.
"The soccer fan will probably realize how good Darlington Nagbe is if he or she just casually watches the game and notices this guy," Leduc said. "There are times when we criticize our own product too much, and maybe Nagbe is an example of a player who can do more and put up higher numbers, but I think he's quality. He's got a touch just like players in the European leagues."
Leduc said he has seen a definite improvement in Nagbe's game after that move from the wing to the center. But he also sees potential for even more.
"I think he's one of the better one-on-one players in the whole league, but he's not being productive enough," Leduc said "I think he needs to have better numbers to take the next step, and then it will be about how he gains experience at the international level and how well he does... Is it going to take a departure, is he going to need to play somewhere else for us to realize that? Because he's tremendously talented."
Leduc concluded by noting that there are "a few of these players that are on MLS teams, and I don't think you realize how good they are until, probably, they leave or play with their national teams and do well."
You'll see two such players across the field in black and gold on Sunday: Kei Kamara and Wil Trapp.
Kamara is the prototypical player who draws raves from MLS devotees, but blank stares from casual followers.
Did you know that he spent half a season on loan at Norwich City and a full season at Middlesbrough before coming to Columbus this year - which I believe officially qualifies him as A Player With Experience Playing Soccer In England? Did you know that he has 21 caps and four goals for Sierra Leone's national team?
No, you didn't. As such, I presume you also don't know that Kamara scored 22 goals this year. Giovinco won the Golden Boot (and the MVP award) because he had more assists.
But the nature of global soccer is such that you've probably heard of the guy Healey equated Kamara to.
"Who's to say he's not our Jamie Vardy?" Healey said."He's someone who is blossoming late in his career, and is suddenly starting to score goals. Kei Kamara has got a long history in MLS and he has found the perfect position and place for his talent to really bear fruit."
My presumption that you've heard of Jamie Vardy stems primarily from the fact that over one million Americans watched him on an over-the-air television network last weekend. Still, journalistic propriety requires me to offer something descriptive about him. Here you go.
I will also offer this about Kamara. I was on Soccer Morning on Friday along with a slew of other media types who offered predictions for Sunday's game. Kamara's name came up more than any other as the one who might singlehandedly deliver a victory.
Trapp's name did not come up much as a potential match-winner, but he's going to be in a serious spotlight too. The 22-year-old has been a stalwart on U.S. youth national teams for some time now, earned his first senior national team cap earlier this year, and has worn Columbus' captain's armband a few times under Berhalter.
Positionally, Trapp is a central midfield metronome. He isn't a pure playmaker and he isn't a pure destroyer, but he is an essential link between Columbus' defense and its attack.
Which makes him... well... remember Lalas' quote above comparing Berhalter and Klinsmann? It came in the context of his description of Trapp.
"When Michael Bradley is playing in a more deep - and, I think, a much better - position for him in that midfield, then that's the type of player [Trapp] is," Lalas said. "His spacing between players and his simplicity are what make him valuable," Lalas said. "It's a very nuanced type of position and performance that he gives when he is being good."
Michael Bradley? Simplicity? Nuance? I know where that path leads.
So I will turn away from it, and put the spotlight on a few other players in the game. These are names who might not get much attention from ESPN viewers, but will from others.
Let's start with Valeri and Higuaín, who are likely to feature prominently in UniMas' Spanish-language broadcast. It wouldn't be at all surprising if Kasanzew gets to interview both of them from his perch on the MAPFRE Stadium sideline.
Univision has benefited greatly from the arrival of three Spanish-speaking superstars in MLS this year: New York City's David Villa, Orlando's Kaká and Los Angeles' Giovani dos Santos. Portland and Columbus don't have such big names, but they have plenty of Latin influence. Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica will all be well-represented on Sunday - and all have long histories of sending talented players to American shores.
Yes, Univision's audience has more Mexicans in it than any other demographic, but it is not at all monolithic. There are plenty of viewers from across the Americas, and they have come to respect MLS.
"They don't have the reflectors of Gio dos Santos, who is huge for our Mexican audience, but if you follow the league, you appreciate these kinds of players," said Kasanzew, who's also Argentine. "I love soccer, and Latinos, Hispanics, they love soccer. It doesn't matter if it's the Champions League, if it's MLS, if it's the Mexican League. They want to see a good game, they want to see stars, they want to see goals."
Wileman and many other Canadians will be watching Timbers midfielder Will Johnson, a former Canadian national team stalwart whose career was sidetracked by a broken leg last year. In the last few weeks, he has finally returned to the field for club and country, playing for Canada in its recent World Cup qualifiers and making brief appearances in the Timbers' playoff series against Dallas.
Those cameos - especially the one in the home leg - added fuel to recent rumors that he'll be leaving Portland after the season ends. Some of those rumors have him heading to Vancouver, others to his home town of Toronto.
If he ends up at either of those clubs, it would be a nice PR boost for all parties involved. And it would be even nicer if he makes such a move after leading the Timbers to what would be the second MLS Cup title of his career.
"Will Johnson is the sort of talismanic player who Canadian fans will look towards, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he is leaving Portland, if there is interest from Canadian clubs," Wileman told me. "There's so much talk north of the border about wanting young Canadian players to develop, but there are also Canadian players who are more experienced within Major League Soccer right now who are playing for teams in the United States. Will Johnson is one of those that I would say would be someone who, if he came in to a Canadian club - especially coming in as a MLS Cup winner with Portland, however big his role will be in the final - he is someone who clubs can build around and who could become one of those iconic Canadian players within Major League Soccer over the next few years."
Maybe something in this piece will convince you to watch Sunday's game, or maybe not. Maybe you're already a MLS devotee, or maybe you'll give it a try out of curiosity.
What you'll see, more than anything else, is this: Portland and Columbus are playing for the biggest prize in American soccer because in MLS, competitive balance is a fundamental core value. To some people, that's a turnoff. To many who follow the league - and to more people who observe MLS from other continents than you might think - it's admirable.
Kasanzew and Healey, a native Englishman who moved to the U.S. in 1992, get that.
"I do feel like having those two teams that don't have these big media stars represents that the league is a very competitive league, and that any team has a chance to go and get to the final if they have a good team spirit, good coaching, good players," Kasanzew said. "Of course you need big stars, because fans follow big stars, but on the other hand, you don't want to have a league like Spain, where there's only two teams competing for the title."
Healey put it even more bluntly.
"Would you not watch a Champions League final if Atlético Madrid got there?" he said. "Would you not watch an FA Cup final if Aston Villa got there? Are we really saying that the only finals worth watching involve L.A., Seattle or New York? That's a pretty sad world, and not one that I would want to live in."
Unfortunately, that may well be the world we have. It's pretty clear at this point that the vast majority of American interest in the English Premier League is concentrated around the big teams that rule the standings by oligopoly.
In Spain, as Kasanzew pointed out, it's almost always Barcelona and Real Madrid, even with Atlético's recent rise to prominence. In Germany, it's Bayern Munich versus the field; the same can be said of France and Paris Saint-Germain. Italy is a bit more unpredictable, but it's still an upset these days when Juventus isn't atop Serie A.
"Well, that's an indictment, isn't it," Healey concluded.
You be the judge.