To the victor go the spoils. The Portland Timbers will host the first marquee match of MLS' 21st season when they host the Columbus Crew at 1:30 pm this Sunday at Providence Park, and in many ways, this game will serve as a continuation of the Timbers' 2015 title celebrations.
But once the rings are handed out, the championship banner is lifted, and the Timbers Army sings the national anthem and raises what's sure to be a special tifo, all attention will turn to the task at hand.
Columbus, with its entire MLS Cup starting lineup intact, comes to Portland eager to exact some measure of revenge for the final game of last season. Caleb Porter's team, meanwhile, has plenty to prove. Not a single national analyst has picked the Timbers to repeat as MLS Cup winners. Buckle up—another season is just two days away.
It's recent, and it's glorious. Columbus's MAPFRE Stadium was the venue when, just 89 days ago, the Timbers won the 2015 MLS Cup.
In that way, these two franchises will always be linked. But they may be linked in another, less tangible way—increasingly, Columbus' organizational setup and identity look like Portland's. Both organizations are helmed by young owners, both have enviable front-office stability and clarity of vision, and neither have shown any interest in acquiring major international stars.
These clubs have plenty of recent history in Ohio, but Columbus' last trip to Portland came two years ago, when, in the spring of 2014, these teams played a wild 3-3 draw that featured a first-half red card for Alvas Powell and a late game-tying assist from Timbers debutant Fanendo Adi.
The spine that led Portland to MLS Cup 2015—Kwarasey, Ridgewell, Borchers, Chara, Nagbe, Valeri, and Adi—remains intact, and, aside from the increasingly haggard Ridgewell, it's healthy and ready to go. It's on the wings where the Timbers have questions.
With Chris Klute still making his way back from what was originally thought be a minor offseason knee procedure, the Timbers have an open spot at fullback. Zarek Valentin and Jermaine Taylor are options, as is Ridgewell — who's dealing with a calf problem but is expected to be ready — with Taylor at center-back.
Dairon Asprilla, who turned his ankle last Saturday in the final preseason game against Chicago, is also expected to start.
Columbus settled their biggest offseason headache earlier this week, when they agreed to a contract extension with Kei Kamara. The only possible hinderance to Gregg Berhalter fielding the same starting 11 that lost MLS Cup in December is an injury to Justin Meram. His status is up in the air.
This should be an exciting game—one that won't bear any resemblance to the Timbers' match against Chicago last Saturday. The Crew remain soft in defense, and won't look to sit in, while Portland's back-line doesn't appear to be as automatic as it was last year. In both of the games these teams played last year, both teams scored at least once.
Several player match-ups will be particularly important. Both sides play a three-man midfield, and Timbers will want to limit the influence of Porter's former Akron charge Wil Trapp. The MLS Cup Final served as a magnum opus of sorts for Jorge Villafaña, who absolutely dominated Columbus' much ballyhooed winger Ethan Finley.
Finley will be happier to line up a different Timbers left-back, while because of the attacking aplomb of the Crew fullbacks, Lucas Melano will have to be better tracking back defensively than he was against Chicago. Meanwhile, Kamara has scored in both previous run-ins with Borchers and Ridgewell. The Timbers' center-backs have a point to prove.
12 - Kwarasey
2 - Powell
4 - Taylor
7 - Borchers
24 - Ridgewell (C)
21 - Chara
6 - Nagbe
8 - Valeri
11 - Asprilla
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
The championship defense will begin just as the championship charge ended: With a 2-1 Timbers win over the Crew.