BEAVERTON, Ore. — The history of the Portland Timbers versus New York City FC is short and one-sided, particularly since Giovanni Savarese took over as Portland head coach four years ago. Since then, the Timbers have played NYCFC three times, gone 3-0-0, and outscored the Blues, 7-2. From the teams’ first meeting in 2015, Portland is 5-1-0 (W-L-T) against New York.
Will that history come into play on Saturday, when NYCFC is at Providence Park for the 2021 MLS Cup final (12pm PT, ABC)? Probably not. The teams haven’t met since last summer's MLS is Back Tournament and, since the end of the 2019 season, have largely lived in separate worlds. There’s been very little interplay between MLS’s Eastern and Western Conferences since, and without many head-to-head matchups, there’s almost been no reason for the Timbers to keep track of NYCFC. Or vice versa.
“It’s a very aggressive team, going forward,” Timbers right back Josecarlos Van Rankin said about NYCFC on Monday from the team’s training ground in Beaverton. Given that Van Rankin, in his first year with the Timbers, has never faced NYCFC, you can understand the generalities. “It’s going to be a very interesting game.”
Part of that interest is the presence of MLS’s Golden Boot winner, Argentine striker Valentín Castellanos, who will return from a one-game, red-card suspension on Saturday. Part of the interest will also be Maxi Moralez, one of MLS’s most prolific playmakers since his arrival from Mexico’s Liga MX in 2017. Part, too, will be the novelty of the matchup. Portland may have had success before against New York, but given how long it’s been since these teams met, who knows what to expect come Saturday’s kickoff?
One thing we do know: who will be in the spotlight for New York. Here are the key players for NYCFC and what you can expect from them at Providence Park.
The Captain: Sean Johnson
For longtime MLS fans, it may have felt weird to see Johnson, with his team captain’s arm band, accepting the Eastern Conference winner’s trophy on Sunday at Subaru Park after defeating the Philadelphia Union 2-1. Is the player who made his United States’ senior debut 10 years ago — who was a long-time fixture for the Chicago Fire before landing in New York — already an elder statesman?
Not to say Johnson’s old, but yes, he is an elder statesman, now. At 32, Johnson has become a constant for the Blues, and on Sunday, after 12 years in the league, he will be making his MLS Cup debut.
The Sniper: Valentín Castellanos
The 23-year-old Argentine led Major League Soccer with 19 goals during the regular season, providing 34.5 percent of his team’s scoring as the only Blue to reach double figures. He also contributed eight assists and played 32 of his team’s 34 games, leading NYCFC in minutes.
Though his team proved on Sunday that they’re capable of winning without him, Castellanos will be one of New York’s most dangerous players against Portland. While he’s working to knock goals in …
The Provider: Maxi Moralez
… Moralez will be trying to set them up.
With 11 assists on the season, the 34-year-old Argentine was NYCFC’s leading creator, also leading the team in key passes (83), passes into the attacking third (176), and passes into the opposing penalty area (77). Since arriving in the Bronx from Mexico’s León five years ago, Moralez has collected 60 assists in 133 regular-season appearances, establishing himself as one of the better No. 10s in Major League Soccer.
Next in attack: Jesús Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi
Though Castellanos is NYCFC’s most dangerous scorer, he’s not their only threat. Paraguayan Jesús Medina (above) has scored nine goals this season, largely from his starting right-wing position, while Libya’s Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (below) has seven in 1,230 minutes.
Together, they’re part of a deep team that gives head coach Ronny Deila a number of in-game options. And as evidenced in the Eastern Conference final — when a second-half, triple substitution helped regain control of the match — Deila won’t hesitate to give his team a new look.
The Stalwarts: Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot
It’s rare that center backs get as much time together as Callens (above) and Chanot (below). In 2021, the duo reached the five-year mark of their center-back partnership, during which time they’ve combined for 253 appearances and have never missed the postseason.
This year, the pair formed the foundation of one of MLS’s best defenses, with the 36 goals NYCFC conceded only three off the league’s best mark.
Missing men: Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks
Tinnerholm, the team’s best fullback, had been one of NYCFC’s most reliable players since his 2018 arrival from his native Sweden. Over his 109 regular-season games, Tinnerholm amassed nine goals and 23 assists – a prolific return for a player at his position. In early October, though, the 30-year-old suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon at home against Nashville. Now coming back from surgery, his recovery should last well into the 2022 season.
Likewise, Parks had played an important part. Brought back to the States in 2019 from Portugal’s Benfica, the Texan midfielder had evolved into one of his team’s most productive parts. At the time he was sidelined after surgery to address a blood clot, the 24-year-old had four goals, three assists and led the team in completed passes (1297) from his deep midfield role. His 122 entries into the attacking third are second on the team, trailing only Moralez.
Young and rising: James Sands
And finally, a name USMNT fans will know.
Sands, an NYCFC academy product, made his full international debut this year, making nine appearances and playing a part in the U.S. team that won the Concacaf Gold Cup during 2021. Capable of playing both in defense and midfield, Sands, now 21, is building on the promise that made him New York’s first Homegrown player four years ago.
Though most of his 2021 minutes came at center back, Sands has moved into central midfield during the playoffs, where his skill on the ball has proven particularly valuable. At season’s end, Sands was second on the team in completed passes (1274), first in passing percentage (90.0%), and had passed for the most distance on the team (27,359 yards).
On medium-range attempts — passes that traveled between 15 and 30 yards — Sands completed 92.9 percent of his attempts, second only Chanot. For a team that ranked fifth in the league in total possession (52.1%), Sands’ play has helped NYCFC weather Parks’s loss.