Each Major League Soccer matchday in 2021, the KeyBank Scouting Report has given a snapshot of the Portland Timbers’ next opponent. For the team's final match – the 2021 MLS Cup at Providence Park against New York City FC on Dec. 11 (12pm PT, ABC, UniMás) – we switched it up a little bit and reached out to soccer broadcaster Glenn Crooks.
Crooks has been the radio voice of the Cityzens since their inaugural 2015 MLS season and also covers the team for Pro Soccer USA. He's also the host of The Coaching Academy on SiriusXM FC, the On Frame and Soccer in the City weekly podcasts.
Crook gives an inside look, from the other side of the pitch, of what to look for in NYC, their path through the postseason, the coaching style of manager Ronny Deila and what Crooks will be watching for in the match this weekend.
The last time Portland faced NYCFC, it was in the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament. The last time the two teams met in the regular season was in July of 2019, and the last time the Cityzens were even at Providence Park was in April of 2018. For fans that may not know NYCFC well, who are some of the key players to keep an eye on for Saturday’s MLS Cup?
I have a vivid memory of that 2018 match at Portland. While I was in the air heading to Portland, Arsene Wenger announced that 2018 would be his last season with Arsenal. I got a text telling me to go straight to the training ground to interview the NYCFC coach at the time, Patrick Vieira, who played seven seasons under Wenger. So, I had the first on-the-record conversation with Patrick after the announcement.
The game was forgettable from an NYCFC standpoint – 3-0 drubbing.
This year’s team is the most talented, versatile and deep roster in the seven years of the franchise. As far as pinpointing certain players to keep an eye on, there are many. Taty Castellanos and Maxi Moralez are the obvious choices – of Maxi’s 13 assists, eight have been to Taty. And the 21-year old Uruguayan Santi Rodriguez is a special player. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson is the most experienced player in the squad and he’s in the best form of his career, with one of top center back duos in the league, Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens in front of him. And then James Sands – he’s played five different positions and has excelled at them all.
The Matchup | Jake Zivin and Liam Ridgewell preview #PORvNYC in the 2021 MLS Cup
What would you say has been the key to NYCFC’s path to reaching the league final?
The key was the acquisition of three attacking transfers: Rodriguez, and the Brazilians Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno. Before that, head coach Ronny Deila was quite public about not having enough attacking depth to compete for an MLS Cup. Rodriguez has become a regular, Thiago has shown flashes and the 18-year old Magno has started to get comfortable toward the tail end of the season. He drew that foul that led to Gudi Thorarinsson’s 90th minute free-kick goal to draw Atlanta – and NYCFC has not lost a game since. And then you saw Magno’s finish against Philadelphia to propel NYC to the final. Also, the maturation of Castellanos – you could just seem him grow during the course of the year. My broadcast partner and I earlier in the year were skeptical – could he be a consistent goal scorer in the league? Deila and his staff believed and they were right.
What can you tell us about Deila’s style of play and tactics?
Before you talk about style and tactics, the most important thing Ronny has brought to the franchise is building trust and togetherness within his team – he is an excellent team builder who gets the most out of his players with an ability to communicate clearly and with truth. It’s the best mood around any of the previous teams and it’s not just because of the current eight-match unbeaten streak. Ronny and his staff deserve a lot of the credit. As for style, while coaching in Norway, Ronny often visited Manchester City to observe Pep Guardiola and the methods he used. Ronny prefers that his team controls the match through possession and calculated decisions to go forward. For the most part, he is looking for ball movement that creates overloads on the flank with a player like Castellanos to finish in the box. But we’ve seen his tactics develop through the course of the season and the team has proven it can succeed playing directly to Castellanos or simply be organized behind the ball and when they win it, NYCFC has executed on some blistering counter-attacks.
In your opinion, what would be the single most important matchup challenge on the field Sunday? Or, what are you really keeping an eye on in the game?
The play of the front four on both sides will tell the tale of this one – or how the back four and deep midfielders on both sides deal with the creativity, dynamic movement and in some cases power they’ll be facing.
As for matchups – 18-year-old Homegrown Tayvon Gray has been up to the task in place of the injured Anton Tinnerholm at right back. He dealt with Ezequiel Barco and George Bello against Atlanta in Round One. Then he did the job at New England against DeJuan Jones, Tommy McNamara and Carles Gil in the conference semis. He’s a bit precocious, extremely confident and not in fear of the big spot. They’ll be none bigger than trying to contain Dairon Asprilla and Santiago Moreno on Saturday. Alfredo Morales and Sands vs. Sebastián Blanco is another one to watch while Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala vs. Castellanos could well be the matchup that figures into the outcome.