The Vastly Different Paths For MLS Final Four

Red Bulls, Crew, FC Dallas, Timbers go their own way to conference finals
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, November 13, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

Four teams remain in the Major League Soccer playoffs, and there’s just one MLS Cup between them.

Heck, you can count the number of MLS conference finals all four clubs have been in over the past decade, combined, on one hand.

What the New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and Portland Timbers do have is a drive to change their history and to get one step closer to the ultimate goal. Each club used a different path over the past season to get to this point, and those paths have been, for the most part, successful. There are no mega-salaried Designated Players, but there is plenty to like with this group.

The Red Bulls have a lot of history to overcome. Yes, they won the Supporters’ Shield for the second time in three seasons, but rarely does winning the shield end up being combined with an MLS Cup. New York also has the second lowest payroll in MLS, surprising for a team with a superstar like Bradley Wright-Phillips and a history of signing big names to big contracts (see Henry, Thierry). But they’ve only been to one MLS Cup final, and that was back in 2008. The Red Bulls have become a solid team, with Wright-Phillips being the focal point of the offense, Gonzalo Verón coming in to improve the midfield in August and the steady play of Luis Robles, they may have exceeded expectations.

But New York was in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, losing to New England. While the shakeup in the front office and head coach (along with a very busy offseason) is well chronicled, the Red Bulls have been a very confident team as the season has gone on. The playoff win over DC United seemed almost routine, and having the second leg at Red Bull Arena will be a factor, as long as they can get out of Columbus in good shape.

Ah, yes, Columbus. The Crew may have had a bit of a rebrand, but this is still the same hard-working side worthy of the old hardhats. Kei Kamara has put in an MVP-type season, Ethan Finley has become a star and the Columbus defense has shown they can frustrate the biggest stars, as they did with Didier Drogba in the second leg in Columbus. The 2008 MLS Cup champions haven’t been back at this stage of the playoffs since that Sigi Schmid-coached side lifted the Cup (defeating the Red Bulls in the final), but this has a look of a team that can win it all.

It’s another phase in the great job that Gregg Berhalter has done in Columbus. He has taken a club that was going nowhere and put them in a position they haven’t been in in seven years. In his two years, the Crew have gone from eighth place in the East in 2013 to second this year and a conference finals appearance.

And the team that finished eighth in the West in 2013? That would be FC Dallas, and their turnaround has been nothing short of spectacular. The 2010 MLS Cup finalists were near rock bottom when they brought back former assistant coach Óscar Pareja from Colorado before the 2014 season, and it has been a genius move. Even though Dallas has the lowest payroll in MLS, the young team that Pareja has created (with seven Homegrown players!) has become the best in the West. Their epic semifinal against Seattle, with 20-year-old Jesse Gonzalez frustrating a veteran Sounders side, showed that this team was indeed ready for prime-time, and maybe will be a power for years to come.

It’s not just the young players making an impact. Blas Pérez still makes an impact whenever he’s on the field and often gets the attention of opponents very quickly (good or bad). Atiba Harris anchors a defense that has gotten stingier. Je-Vaughn Watson is still dangerous in the midfield. While Dallas is at its core getting younger, veterans like Pérez, Harris and Watson are still crucial players in this team.

Maybe the team that has stunned its own supporters the most by making it to the conference finals is Portland. The Timbers have been on a wild ride for most of 2015, and there have been occasions when it seemed that making the playoffs was a longshot. But a stunning finish, winning 4 of their last 5, moved them into third in the West. The team they lost to? Sporting Kansas City, the club Portland defeated in that wild, crazy knockout round match that Portland won in what may have been the best playoff shootout MLS has ever seen.

The rise of the Timbers has been stunning. Part of that season-ending streak included road wins at Columbus (2-1), a shocking rout over the Galaxy in SoCal (5-2) and one at Real Salt Lake that effectively ended RSL’s slim playoff hopes. Their road warrior status has continued in the playoffs, winning 2-0 in Vancouver to end the Whitecaps’ season and move on to their second conference final in the last three seasons.

It’s been amazing to watch. Diego Chara has been incredible, Darlington Nagbe has become dominant, Fanendo Adi continues to score big goals and Adam Kwarasey is now one of MLS’ top goalkeepers. This has come with Will Johnson being out injured and Lucas Melano still trying to get comfortable in Caleb Porter’s system. And with their best work coming on the road, the Timbers will be quite confident in Dallas if they can hold serve at home.

So, is there a favorite for the MLS Cup at this stage? Not really, and that is what makes these conference finals so fascinating. Can the Red Bulls not go Metro? Can the Crew take that next step? Is the future now for FC Dallas? Does a wild Timbers season have a few more twists? We’ve got another week to think about it, and then the answers will start to come in.

But, much like this final group of four, those answers just may not be the ones we may expect.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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