The stage has been set for the 2021 MLS Cup this Saturday, December 11th. After battling through the playoffs, the Portland Timbers and New York City FC have come out on top in their respective conferences.
The path for both teams was anything but normal, as the case usually is in MLS playoffs, but despite the hurdles both teams had to overcome, they’ve prevailed. Here is all you need to know about the 26th edition of MLS Cup and how we got here.
A Tale of Two Seasons
The Portland Timbers came into 2021 as a popular projected contender for MLS Cup.
Those lofty expectations quickly turned into early disappointment as Portland stumbled out of the gates. Their first half of the season, spent almost exclusively outside the playoff spots, was an inconsistent, underperforming mess.
You could have cut them some slack, because they were without their star playmaker Sebastián Blanco for a substantial portion of that period. However, despite that, they still had good depth on their roster to compete.
Fast forward to the present and Portland look like a completely different team to the one we saw at the beginning of the season. They ended the latter part of the season in fine form, not only making the playoffs, but earning the fourth seed.
You could say NYCFC had the opposite trajectory of Portland this season. While Portland had an upward trajectory throughout their regular season, NYCFC had a downward trajectory.
They started off the season as one of the hottest teams in MLS but started falling off near the end. At one point, it didn’t even look like they would be able to retain their playoff position.
However, they clutched up in the end and got the results they needed to make playoffs, just like Portland, ended up as the 4th seed in the East.
While this year’s MLS Cup finalists had very different regular season trajectories, they both got hot in the playoffs despite some major injury issues.
As is always the case in MLS, both teams had depth players step up when important players went down throughout the season.
NYCFC had the injury bug hit them right at the end of the regular season, losing key players like midfielder Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm (who is arguably the best right back in the league). Parks had a blood clot and Tinnerholm ruptured his Achilles, ruling them both out for the rest of the season.
Portland also lost one of their key midfielders, Homegrown Eryk Williamson, who suffered an ACL tear in August. Then, during the playoffs, Sebastian Blanco suffered an apparent hamstring injury that relegated him to the bench for the Western Conference final.
Blanco should be available for MLS Cup, but his level of health will be a key storyline to watch.
How They Got Here
Both teams had crazy playoff journeys to reach Saturday’s final at Providence Park.
The Timbers comfortably beat Minnesota in their first-round home game, but then had the daunting task of going to Colorado to play the number one seed. They beat the Rapids on a second half set piece goal and booked their spot in the Western Conference finals against this season’s Cinderella story, Real Salt Lake.
Despite having lost Blanco to injury and attacker Dairon Asprilla to a red card suspension, Portland scored an early goal off a bad clearance and from then on, RSL could never seem to get into the game. Once Portland scored the second, it never looked like RSL had what it took to pull off another yet another playoff miracle.
This won’t be Portland’s first rodeo in an MLS Cup final as they became the first Cascadia team to win the trophy back in 2015. However, this time around, the final will be held in Portland for the first time against a tough New York City FC team.
NYCFC, for their part, had a playoff path that was oddly similar to Portland’s.
They also comfortably beat their first-round opponent, Atlanta United, at home, before traveling for a much-hyped matchup against the number one overall seed, the New England Revolution.
It started with each team scoring a goal less than 10 minutes into the match, foreshadowing the madness that would ensue later on in overtime.
Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos scored for NYCFC to take the lead but then got a second yellow four minutes later, putting the Cityzens down to 10 men before injury struggles put them practically down to nine men, allowing New England to score a dramatic equalizer in the 118th minute. In the ensuing penalties, though, NYCFC triumphed and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final against the Philadelphia Union.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, 11 of their players weren’t eligible for the game due to COVID protocols, costing the Union several of their key players for the big game. NYCFC, though, were without their star striker due to his red received the previous game.
Philadelphia gave a valiant effort, but NYCFC ended up winning the game 2 – 1 with another dramatic ending from an 88th minute game-winning goal by 19-year-old Brazilian Talles Magno.
NYCFC will now be playing in hostile territory for MLS Cup but will have their leading goal scorer Castellanos back. This will be NYCFC’s first ever MLS Cup final appearance and they will have to bring their absolute best to beat the Timbers at what will be a raucous Providence Park.
These are two sides that have shown incredible resilience throughout the regular season and playoffs, but they will need plenty more of it when they face off Saturday.
You can watch the match at home at 3 p.m. ET on ABC, Unímas, and TUDN. However, a more fun option is to watch the final with fellow Charlotte FC fans at the MLS Cup Watch parties hosted by local supporter's groups at the following locations around the Carolinas: