Portland's MLS Cup win over Columbus illustrates league's new trend

Portland's MLS Cup win over Columbus illustrates league's new trend

It's hard to use the annual, one-off MLS Cup as a referendum for the entire season, or for the direction of all of Major League Soccer. The final game hardly represents adequately the 356 that came before it. Because of sample sizes and all of that. But then in some ways, the stateside soccer league's 20th championship game did underscore a significant trend.

It wasn't evidence, exactly, but the game illustrated the way the league seems to be bending towards attacking soccer. Increasingly, teams are employing positive and proactive tactics. Most all of them value attacking over defending. And that's kind of new.

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It's hard to quantify this theory or to build it on a foundation more sturdy than observation and conversations over the past half decade, but there seems to have been a shift in the mindset.

Not so long ago, it was mostly true that most all teams played cautiously on the road and some approached their home games in the same way. That meant at least one team bunkered in for almost every game. And it made for cluttered soccer, producing a great many counterattacks and turning a lot of games into track meets. That's what gave MLS its reputation for being a rough-and-tumble league. One where there were apparently more jobs available for scrappers than technicians.

That's changed in the last year or two, as a flurry of teams have managed to attract and develop more attacking talent and decided scoring goals might be easier than preventing them. Both of the clubs in Sunday's final pride themselves on playing sophisticated soccer. So, anecdotally, they reflected the attacking evolution in the 2015 finale, won 2-1 by the Portland Timbers against the hosting Columbus Crew.

"It was two good teams going after each other," said Crew manager Gregg Berhalter, whose team scored the second-most goals in the regular season. "To me, it was an attractive game, a game with a lot of passion, a lot of tempo to it. We stayed true to our identity."

If the game was decided by a series of mistakes – whether by players or the referees – it was nevertheless an open and offensive affair, in stark contrast to several recent finals that were tense and congested. Indeed, half of the previous 10 MLS Cup finals produced two goals or fewer, even though three of those barren games went to extra time.

In Columbus, Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark tried to dribble away from Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri after a back pass in his own box less than half a minute into the game. But he took too much time and Valeri, tracking him, slid and deflected the pass into the net.

Then, before the seventh minute, Darlington Nagbe picked the ball up by the sideline, after it had clearly gone out of bounds but went uncalled. He played it wide to Lucas Melano after a winding run. The Crew defense went to sleep, and Rodney Wallace headed home the eventual game-winner with a diving effort off the cross.

The Crew made the game close though. In the 18th minute, Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey fumbled a high ball and Kei Kamara, the Crew's not fully fit star striker, poked it away and then scrambled it in. And the home team took control from then on, overcoming its shellshock and forcing the Timbers to drop in deeper and look for the counter.

Still, Portland came closer to doubling the lead again, pinging the post several times, than Columbus did to getting an equalizer. A few miraculous bounces seemed to keep the ball out of the Crew's goal. At the hour mark, for instance, a ball dinked off the underside of the crossbar and off Michael Parkhurst's arm on the goal line, before bounding out. Referee Jair Marrufo missed it.

As such, the Timbers were fitting champions – as the Crew would have been – in the apparent dawning of this new age of an attack-minded MLS.

This may seem like a counterintuitive reading of recent developments. Because if you look at the full sweep of MLS's history, the scoring trend has mostly sloped down. Regular-season games produced an average of three goals or more in six of the league's first seven seasons, from 1996 through 2002 – peaking at 3.57 in 1998. Since then, that hasn't happened again. Averages have held steady between 2.46 (2010) and 2.89 (2003). And if the goal production in the last two seasons – 2.86 and 2.76, respectively – were the highest since 2002 and 2003, it was still within that narrow deviation.

There are probably a whole host of explanations. For starters, MLS defending was particularly woeful in the league's early years. And as the Designated Player era has worn on, the ratio between money spent on attackers and defenders has grown ever further out of whack.

But, more acutely and interestingly, it appears now that most of the successful teams in the league are now built to attack. The star-laden Los Angeles Galaxy is built around attackers or attacking midfielders. Toronto FC reached its first playoffs with enormous attacking firepower. New York City FC almost made up for its defensive malpractice with all that attacking talent. Losing conference finalists FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls turned their up-tempo forays into a form of art. The Montreal Impact, New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders attacked well and often. Other than NYCFC, all of those teams reached the playoffs. And there are others who aspire to taking the game to their opponents.

Happily, all of that attacking has made the league more watchable.

And on Sunday, it produced one of the most entertaining finals in memory.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.