We’re down to the final two; Portland Timbers vs New York City FC for the right to lift MLS Cup.
There have been incredible moments, strokes of luck, and dominant performances along the way. But to reach this stage, you really do have to be the best of the best in Major League Soccer.
The Timbers‘ home advantage aside, this is an almost impossible match-up to call. Both teams have firepower and defensive monsters. And both have some of the biggest difference-makers in MLS right now.
With that in mind, shall we mash them together in a combined XI? A quick note before we start, only healthy players will be selected, so you won’t see the likes of Anton Tinnerholm, Eryk Williamson, and Keaton Parks.
Sean Johnson (GK) – In a statistical sense, Steve Clark has shaded Sean Johnson this season. But the USMNT goalkeeper still comes up in the big moments for NYCFC and has made some huge saves in these Playoffs.
Plus, given the absolute wealth of experience he offers – including over 300 senior club appearances and three spots at successful Gold Cup campaigns – he’s the guy you’d trust in a big final.
Josecarlos Van Rankin (RB) – Though he wasn’t too much of a threat in the final third, Van Rankin was rock-solid through most of 2021.
The Argentine ranked third among Timbers players for combined tackles and interceptions (120), and recoveries (199). Shoutout goes to Tayvon Gray, who filled in brilliantly for Anton Tinnerholm and looks a serious talent.
Alexander Callens (CB) – There will be those screaming about Callens’ own goal in the Eastern Conference final, but come on. He had to do something. Other than that, he’s been excellent in these Playoffs and is arguably one of the best center-backs in MLS on his day.
Dario Zuparic (CB) – He’s a little old-fashioned and no-nonsense, but Dario Zuparic has got the job done during the Playoffs. In fact, through the 2021 season, the Croatian is first among Portland players for clearances (136) and second for aerial duels won (56).
Claudio Bravo (LB) – NYCFC have a couple of good left-backs, but neither held down their spot, so, enter Claudio Bravo. Like Van Rankin, Bravo helped lock down the flanks for Giovanni Savarese, giving the Timbers wide-men more freedom to wreak havoc.
Diego Chara (DM) – He might be 35-years-old, but you’d still do well to find a better defensive midfielder than Diego Chara in MLS. The Colombian has applied 717 pressures to the opposition this season, at least 227 more than any of his teammates.
He’s also second for tackles (83) and interceptions (55). But Chara isn’t just your atypical hatchetman. He’s also a supremely capable carrier and passer of the ball, turning over possession and springing counter-attacks in the blink of an eye.
James Sands (DM) – The more 2021 has gone, the better James Sands has looked. NYCFC’s first-ever homegrown is remarkably calm in possession, able to keep his cool and play out of the most intense opposition pressure.
His versatility in being able to play center-back makes him a manager’s dream, too.
Yimmi Chara (RW) – The younger Chara brother has six goals and five primary assists to his name this season, but his influence goes far beyond that. He’s dynamic on the dribble and incredibly direct. And, as we’ve seen during the Playoffs, he never, ever seems to get tired. Priceless at this time of year.
Maxi Moralez (CAM) – Any notion of Maxi Moralez regressing in his latter years have been swept away in 2021.
The diminutive Argentine has been at his creative best this season, laying on 12 primary assists – only Djordje Mihailovic and Carles Gil managed more (both 14) – and setting up 87 chances, placing him fifth in the entire league. Give Moralez space and he will punish you to the nth degree.
Sebastian Blanco (LW) – Okay, so Sebastian Blanco doesn’t have the electric pace to be a winger. Fine. Just let him drift inside to combine with Moralez.
How terrifying does that sound? Like Moralez for NYCFC, Blanco has been key for the Timbers this season with nine goals and six assists in just 1,324 minutes. His brace against Minnesota United in Round One truly ignited Portland’s MLS Cup bid. One of the very best in the league.
Taty Castellanos (ST) – There’s only one man for this job. The 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner, Castellanos has 21 goals to his name so far (and eight primary assists for good measure). Even during some of his frustrating, wasteful periods during mid-season, his hold-up play and movement were so important to his teammates.
Castellanos played a huge role in setting up NYCFC’s tie with the Union, scoring against Atlanta United and the New England Revolution in the previous rounds. Ronny Deila’s side looked a little sluggish up-front on Sunday without the suspended Argentine, but he’s back this weekend and will look to put his name in the MLS history books.
Substitutes: Steve Clark (GK), Larrys Mabiala (CB), Tayvon Gray (RB), GudmundurThórarinsson (LB), Cristhian Paredes (CM), Diego Valeri (CAM), Talles Magno (FW), Dairon Asprilla (FW), Felipe Mora (ST).
Portland Timbers players: 12
NYCFC players: 8