MLS Cup preview, picks: Will Portland celebrate Timbers triumph?


Two-hundred-thirty-eight days ago, 27 teams had visions of lifting MLS Cup. That dream has long been extinguished for all but the Portland Timbers and New York City FC, who contest the league’s showpiece event on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ABC).

For the first time, the Rose City plays host to the final, the atmospheric Providence Park the backdrop for the Timbers’ third MLS Cup appearance in seven years. It’s a dream locale for the league, and a matchup that will see either dancing in the streets in one of its most fervent markets, or a long-awaited payoff for a glamor club in NYCFC who have shifted strategy from star power to growth potential.

With the final stage set, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Caitlin Murray, Dan Hajducky and Austin Lindberg preview MLS Cup, predicting who will be lifting silverware come Saturday and who will be despondent in defeat.

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Even before an $85 million renovation project expanded Providence Park’s capacity to 25,218 prior to the 2019 season, the Timbers had one of the best home atmospheres in Major League Soccer. The historic site had served many purposes since its original construction was completed in 1893, but over time it evolved into somewhat of a spiritual home for soccer in the United States.

Even with the modernization that came with expansion, the stadium — tucked into the Goose Hollow neighborhood — kept its historic charm. Despite the presence of turf, it’s a venue fitting for the biggest stage the league has to offer. Despite the gloomy weather expected on Saturday as Portland hosts MLS Cup for the first time, the atmosphere should be a point of a pride for the league.

What a difference one results or four points can make.

Had the Timbers lost to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference final or finished with fewer points than NYCFC, MLS Cup would have been played at Yankee Stadium, and while playing in the largest media market in the country would have had its benefits, even a sold-out Yankee Stadium would have been an awkward look on TV.

It’s not unusual that both NYCFC and Portland were better at home during the regular season, but few teams in the league had such a wide discrepancy between home and away performances than the two left standing. NYCFC had twice as many points at home (34) as they did on the road (17), while Portland’s split (35/20) was similar. That on its face is reason enough to cast the Timbers as the favorites to claim their second MLS Cup, following their first that came with a 2-1 win at Columbus in 2015.

“I’ve heard it is a very good atmosphere, but there is nothing more fun than playing in a stadium with a good atmosphere,” NYCFC coach Ronny Delia said. “We have to deal with the noise to be playing away, but we have been playing away against the best team in the league (New England) and did well. And it was also quite noisy there and also in Philadelphia. This is maybe a step up when you’re talking about noise but I think we have players through these things many times.”

As of Wednesday, Delia said he hadn’t settled on a starting XI. The only change he confirmed was obvious: after missing the conference final against Philadelphia due to a red card, Golden Boot award winner Valentin Castellanos will return to the lineup. That should certainly provide a spark to the NYCFC that was stagnant in long stretches against the Union.

Portland has reinforcements in attack, too. Dairon Asprilla missed the conference final due to a red card and Sebastian Blanco was an unused sub due to injury. It still remains to be seen how effective Blanco can be coming off a hamstring injury, but given that he was available over the weekend it’s reasonable to expect him to have some kind of role on Saturday.

During the regular season, NYCFC and Portland played with conflicting styles. Only four teams possessed the ball with a higher percentage than the Pigeons (52.99%), while no team played on the counter more than Portland, who had the lowest possession percentage in MLS (44.9%). Still, they ultimately got to the same place: NYCFC’s 64.65 xG ranked No. 2 in MLS, while Portland’s 56.18 was No. 4 — and they both scored 56 goals, which ranked only behind New England (65) and Sporting Kansas City (58). — Bonagura


Whatever defensive frailties plagued Portland during the regular season have been fixed in the playoffs, with just one goal conceded in three games. Granted, the Timbers haven’t faced an attack like NYCFC’s, especially with Castellanos back in the lineup. But with Blanco and Asprilla returning to play at least a role in Saturday’s match, and with Providence Park in full voice, look for the Timbers to prevail. — Carlisle

NYCFC already beat the best regular season team in league history on the road in these playoffs, so winning at Portland certainly is a reasonable outcome. Just not likely. Portland simply plays at another level at Providence Park and with the support it can expect on Saturday, that carries the day. — Bonagura

For anyone who has never been to a Timbers game at Providence Park, the easiest description of the atmosphere is the anti-Yankee Stadium. The fans, including the sizeable Timbers Army, will be on top of NYCFC, and it should be the most raucous crowd the Timbers have played in front of since before the pandemic. Also: Since MLS eliminated the neutral site host for MLS Cup in 2012, the home team has won all except two: when the Timbers won in Columbus in 2015 in a strange game, and when the Seattle Sounders FC won on penalty kicks in Toronto after a scoreless slog in 2016. Homefield advantage in MLS matters. The Timbers’ defense is a concern, and will struggle if Castellanos has a good game, but coach Giovanni Savarese usually figures it out. — Murray

It certainly feels like the stars have aligned for Portland. It’s hosting its first final, as it seems Diego Valeri‘s time in Stumptown is winding down. It would be fitting to send the four-time MLS All-Star and one of three players in league history with both 80 goals and 80 assists into the sunset with another Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. Fortunately, both heart and head say this is the Timbers’ to take. — Hajducky

It’s rather remarkable that NYCFC, whose road form in 2021 was pedestrian at best, went to New England and then Philadelphia to knock off the Eastern Conference’s two best teams. What lies in wait in Portland, though, will be something else entirely. Saturday’s MLS Cup stands to be the most atmospheric, emotional contest in the league’s history, and if that fervent fan support doesn’t get the Timbers up for the contest, I don’t know what will. — Lindberg

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