COLUMBUS, Ohio—Kei Kamara’s goal was one of Columbus Crew SC’s few highlights in a 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers in late September.
The header off a corner kick is one Crew SC will look to replicate when they take on the same team in Sunday’s MLS Cup (4 pm ET, ESPN, UniMás in US, TSN1/4, RDS2 in Canada).
For Portland, it's the threat of Kamara – the league’s co-leader in goals scored this season (22), who added three more during this MLS Cup Playoffs run – that likely weighs heavily on their minds headed into the rematch.
“Had [Toronto FC’s Sebastian] Giovinco not come into the league this year, I think Kei Kamara is hands down the MVP of the league with the season he’s had,” said Timbers center back Nat Borchers, before the team’s first training session Friday at the Crew SC facility. “He’s obviously a big guy, he’s fast, he’s athletic, he can score goals. I mean, he’s one of the best center forwards in the league, and we’re going to have to keep track of him.”
That responsibility falls largely to Borchers and fellow central defender Liam Ridgewell. The two veterans catalyzed a defense that tallied a league-leading 13 shutouts, with one more in the playoffs, while conceding just 39 goals in 34 regular-season games.
“I think it brings a very good matchup,” Ridgewell, said during Friday’s MLS Cup press conference. “We’ve had the most clean sheets on the season, and we’re matched up with the player who scored the most goals on the season. We had a very good match against him last time we were down here and we won, and it’s something we look forward to.”
The 6-foot-3, 186-pound Kamara uses his size and athleticism perhaps better than any target forward in the league, scoring 11 of his 25 total goals via header. No other player in the league scored more than four headed goals this season.
It certainly forecasts some physical battles in the area with Borchers and Ridgewell on Sunday, both sizable players themselves. Kamara also presents a matchup Portland haven’t seen this postseason, with their first three opponents, Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas, lacking a target forward of Kamara’s stature.
Ridgewell said, however, that they’re plenty used to matching up with players of his quality.
“Every single week we come up against a great center forward, and every week someone has asked me, ‘You’re playing against Robbie Keane. You’re playing against Obafemi Martins. Now you’re playing against Kamara,’” Ridgewell said. "Someone might be able to jump more than someone else or might be quicker, but the tactics for me and Nat are always the same.”
Kamara came off with an injury toward the end of Crew SC’s training session Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium, one wrinkle that could change Portland’s preparations. Kamara’s status was described by the club as a "game-time decision."
When it comes to specific defensive matchups, Timbers head coach Caleb Porter often says their best defense is controlling the attack, but he did acknowledge that they are factoring in the opponent.
“We’re not a reactionary team where we always just game-plan to stop the opponent,” Porter said. "I’ve learned to factor the opponent in and make sure I’m aware of certain things because as much as you want to decide the game with the ball games don’t always go that way, don’t always go as planned. You’ve got to respect the other team.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.