The MLS Cup. At home. In front of a sold-out MAPFRE Stadium crowd. It doesn’t get any bigger or better for Columbus Crew SC.
The Black & Gold have the chance to claim their second MLS Cup seven years after Columbus lifted the trophy for the first and only time in club history. It’s a special moment for Crew SC, its supporters and the Capital City.
Yet, if you ask Ethan Finlay and company, they are approaching Sunday’s match vs. the Portland Timbers (4 p.m., ESPN and UniMas) like any other match.
“This is just a normal exercise,” Finlay says. “It’s a home game that we have to win. That’s how we’ve approached it all week and that’s how we’ll continue to approach it.”
Fellow midfielder Wil Trapp agrees.
“This week’s been pretty normal,” he says. “We’re trying to approach it as just the next game up.”
That can be a little difficult considering what’s at stake, how much media attention the team has been getting, and how much excitement for Sunday’s match is building up around the city. It certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Homegrown and his team.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring a championship home to Columbus,” Trapp says. “You don’t get these opportunities very often to play in front of your hometown crowd. As a kid growing up, it was great to see them win it in 2008, and we’re hoping to make our mark this year.”
This is the fourth year in which the finalist that finished higher in the Supporters’ Shield standings hosts the MLS Cup. Sunday will mark the first time Crew SC gets to compete for the trophy within the friendly confines of MAPFRE Stadium.
“How lucky and how fortunate are we to have this in the great city of Columbus,” Finlay says. “I think this is a big thank you to our fans who have stood by us since day one. I think it’s going to be a big night on Sunday.”
The midfielder is expecting a raucous MAPFRE Stadium crowd and says the Black & Gold will feed off it while trying to stay cool-headed.
“In those heated moments, when it’s late in the game and the crowd is into it, we have to stay calm and focused,” he says. “The eleven guys on the field will be accountable for what happens on the field. We want it to be loud, we want it to be crazy, because we know they will be loud for us.”
Finlay says he’s expecting a close match between two very good teams that have taken similar paths to the final. Both Columbus and Portland caught fire during the second half of the season, picking up 22 and 20 points respectively over their final 11 matches. And both teams elevated their play even more during the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“They are a very good team,” Finlay says of the Timbers. “There’s a reason they are here. We both have our strengths and I think it will be a battle come Sunday.”
Crew SC and the Timbers met once before this season, on September 26, when Portland defeated the Black & Gold, 2-1, at MAPFRE Stadium. Fanendo Adi scored both goals for the visitors. The 18-goal-man will be one player to watch, along with playmaker Diego Valeri and fellow midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Together, they make up a large part of Portland’s offense that excels in particular on the break.
“They have always been a dangerous transition team,” Trapp says. “Tony [Tchani] and I balance-wise will have to take care of those moments and make sure we know where Valeri and Darlington are always […] If you allow Nagbe to run with the ball, Valeri to run with the ball, they can pick out passes, and they have able runners off the ball, as well.”
Trapp says defensively Crew SC will aim to slow down Portland’s attackers by getting numbers around them. On the offensive side, the Black & Gold are looking for a strong start, similar to their previous two playoff matches at home, where they scored goals in the fourth and first minutes, respectively.
“It will be really important on Sunday because you’ll allow the crowd to get in the game early and the excitement builds,” Trapp says. “If it doesn’t start with a goal, we’re not too worried about it, but it definitely helps moving the game along.”
The Black & Gold have several attackers who could provide that first goal, chief among them Kei Kamara, this year’s leading scorer in MLS with 25 goals.
“When you have a guy that you know you can depend on, and in any game can make something happen at any time, that’s extremely helpful to have,” Finlay says. “We look for him to have a big game come Sunday, but we have a lot of weapons up top and throughout our team that we can use.”
Among those weapons is Finlay himself. No. 13 has had a standout year with 13 goals and 13 assists. He has started all 38 matches for Crew SC this year. Should he start on Sunday as well, he would be the only player in MLS to start all possible 39 games this season. And whether or not Finlay does admit it, that 39th match won't be like any other match.