By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 2, 2015) US Soccer Players - When Columbus Crew SC lines up against the Portland Timbers with the MLS Cup title on the line Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium, the similarities between the two teams will be obvious.
Both have young American coaches with strong tactical philosophies. Both have speedy wingers capable of changing games on their own. Both have Argentinian creative players in their midfields. Both have talented, athletic, players of African birth and American upbringing as lynchpins in those same midfields.
And both have a critical target forward of that same background up top, the men from which so much of their respective teams’ success flows. Especially in the playoffs, the play of Kei Kamara of Crew SC and Fanendo Adi of the Timbers has taken on outsized proportions. That’s not just because they’re both good, and both capable of scoring goals. It’s also because the tactical choices of their head coaches mean they’ve become crucial to navigating the MLS playoff gauntlet and arriving at the MLS Cup final.
Kamara started the year as the man for Crew SC. Technically signed before the end of the 2014 season, anticipation was high. Returning to the league from England, Kamara was the pure goals corer Columbus needed to make the leap from good to great in 2015. Head coach Gregg Berhalter’s high octane attacking approach worked well enough in 2014, but without a tried-and-true threat at the head of the formation, the team didn’t have the teeth to go all the way.
Kamara outdid everyone’s expectations by scoring 22 goals. He is so dominant in the air that he exerts a massive influence on how teams must defend Columbus. Even when he’s not scoring himself, his ability to knock down aerial passes for teammates is a major factor in the team’s ability to create chances. Against the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, it was Kamara who won a long ball in the open second of a game, playing it into the path of Ethan Finlay. Finlay didn’t score, but his effort rebounded to Justin Meram, who did. Crew SC never looked back, eventually riding their opening leg win to a berth in the title game.
Kamara’s presence as an aerial ball-winner allowed Columbus to negate the Red Bulls midfield press by playing the ball over the top. New York had no one who stop Kamara from making the strategy effective. As key as Kamara is to the Crew attack, he served as the critical defensive cog in the series against the Red Bulls by helping his team hold on to the ball and avoid mistakes that could turn into New York chances.
Adi didn’t have the irresistible year that Kamara did, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less important to his team. Adi’s emergence as the go-to striker in Caleb Porter’s lineup has freed up the team to play with a swashbuckling style that eventually paid dividends at the end of the regular season. What was once a solid defensive team that couldn’t figure out how to score goals became a better-rounded team capable of something like winning the Western Conference. Some of that has to do with the influence of Adi.
Adi is younger than Kamara by six years, and quite often the lesser experience shows. What Adi lacks in craft, he can make for in effort. Against FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals, Adi used his size and strength to victimize the FCD backline, but it’s his movement off the ball that makes him most dangerous. Adi is similar in stature to Kamara, especially in height at 6’4”, but is not necessarily adept at using that height to win balls in the air or playing the target role Kamara has perfected in Columbus.
What Adi has given the Timber is a consistent enough finisher that they’re speedy counterattacking moves now pose a threat the opponent must respect. That, combined with the emergence of Darlington Nagbe as a box-to-box central player, is a large part of why Portland finds themselves 90 minutes away from an MLS Cup title. It took Caleb Porter some time to come to the conclusion that Adi was the best choice up top and that the Timbers best formation was a 4-3-3, but when he did, things finally clicked in for the Cascadia club.
The Sierra Leonean Kamara and the Nigerian Adi have some superficial parallels in their backstories. Both African. Both tall. Both athletic. Both leading the way for MLS Cup finalists.
But there are many more differences that make them each fascinating in their own right. Thought they’re unlikely to do battle directly come Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium, the fortunes of their teams will come down to just how well they play their roles.
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