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MLS Post-Mortem: Timbers, Crew off to MLS Cup Final after frantic finishes

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Two incredible last-second finishes put the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew into the MLS Cup Finals.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

1. Portland Timbers squeak by FC Dallas to advance to the 2015 MLS Cup Final

At one point late in the season, it looked as though the Timbers wouldn't even make it into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Now, Portland are off to the final after an impressive 5-3 aggregate victory over FC Dallas in the Western Conference championship.

Caleb Porter's side had to weather the storm in rainy Frisco, holding out against a ferocious Dallas attack for almost the entirety of the second-half. Even without starting center-back Liam Ridgewell on the backline, the Timbers managed to prevent the fast, dynamic stars of FCD from getting the ball past Adam Kwarsey more than the visitors could afford.

The match featured many critical moments. Here are just a few:

Fanendo Adi appears to seal the series for the Timbers early in the second-half

The contest was relatively dull until Portland number-nine Fanendo Adi found the ball with his back to goal around the six-yard box in the 54th-minute; the game was scoreless and FC Dallas was already starting to push everyone forward in pursuit of a comeback. The big, physical Nigerian whipped around and fired a low shot through 20-year old Dallas keeperJesse Gonzalez, making it 1-0 in favor of the Timbers. On aggregate, the score was 4-1 and Portland had a vital away goal.

This was a classic Fanendo Adi score. His physicality and deadliness with his back-to-goal can't be matched.

-Dallas storms back

At that point, the Horns needed three goals just to tie it, a mountainous task considering their young, inexperienced roster and severe lack of momentum. But true to what they have done all season, Dallas defied the odds and came back hot. They pushed and pushed until they produced a crucial first goal to cut the deficit to two. Left-back Ryan Hollingshead, a center attacking midfielder in college, stuck a world-class Mauro Diaz ball in the bottom corner of the net, giving the hosts life.

This was one of the few times Diaz was able to run his magic Sunday night. Marked by Portland's ruthless holding mid Diego Chara, the Argentine didn't have his usual capability of finding space at the top of the box, which really hindered Dallas's attack all night.

Nonetheless, it was 1-1, giving the home fans a slight glimmer of hope at Toyota Park.

-Blas Perez enters the match

The main difference between these two teams are the forwards. Adi has been huge for the Timbers, while David Texeirahas been sort of a weakness for FCD, despite his goal in the first leg. When Oscar Pareja decided to bring on striker Blas Perez in the second half, it was a turning point.

Perez, the veteran Panama-international who has the size and incisiveness to cause problems in the box, entered in the 66th-minute to wreck havoc on Nat Borchers, Chara and Norberto Paparatto. He succeeded in that task, getting on the end of multiple crosses and eventually slipping one past Kwarsey on a Diaz-delivered set piece. Perez provided a much bigger impact than Texeira.

-The home team switches to all-out attack

Shortly after Perez netted his sixth of the season, FC Dallas threw as many numbers forward as they could, looking for a crucial third goal. Forward Tesho Akindele had subbed on for defensive midfielder Victor Ulloa to put even more players in the box, resulting in a plethora of crosses arriving from the wings.

Everybody was pushed high up the pitch in an attempt to increase the odds of a goal, but as a result they were left vulnerable to Portland's speedy counter-attacks.

Eventually, the Timbers put on pacey winger Lucas Melano just for one of those counters. That sub was a successful one, as it was the Argentine who put the game away:

After a blistering run through the weak Dallas defense, Melano dribbled neatly around Gonzalez and tapped the ball past the Mexican keeper, spinning the city of Portland into a frenzy while silencing the hopeful Frisco crowd.

FC Dallas's second-half throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink strategy didn't work. The Portland Timbers were crowned Western Conference champs.

2. Columbus Crew survive a late attack to defeat the New York Red Bulls

There were instances where this game was exciting, particularly the last 20 minutes or so, but for the majority of the match, the Crew and Red Bulls played to an ugly stalemate. And that's exactly what the Crew wanted.

This series had a lot in common with the Western Conference version. The underdog, in this case the Crew, took a two-goal advantage at home in the first leg, forcing the favorite, NYRB, to scramble back from the deficit. It was a tough task for both of the favorites, but the Supporter's Shield winners had it worse; they didn't score an away goal in the first-leg.

New York's playing style–high-press, high build-up with their midfield triangle–didn't suit them for the task they had at hand against the Crew. They needed to push numbers forward, send people into the box and cross it to them in order to come back. Like Dallas, they would have to run the risk of the opposition countering, but it's a gamble they needed to be willing to take. Manager Jesse Marsch didn't take that gamble until the 72nd-minute, when he subbed on Anatole Abang for defender Kemar Lawrence.

Abang, a 6'1 striker with a nose for the ball, provided an aerial presence in the box. He won more than 50 percent of his headers in the 18 minute cameo he was given, including the goal that gave the Red Bulls a slight chance for a come-back in second-half stoppage time.

If New York had been more open to changing their style to fit the situation, this game could have easily played out differently.

3. Columbus show their stripes on the defensive end

While the hosts failed to adjust themselves accordingly, the Crew did exactly the opposite. Despite having defensive woes for much of the season, the Black and Gold went with a park-the-bus mantra for the majority of the game. They sat deep, piled everyone in the middle and dared the Red Bulls to play through the wings. When Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam looked to enter the box themselves, they were shut down by Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, the Crew's two full-backs.

Neither Grella nor Sam had any sort of effect on this game or series. Columbus can thank the above two for that.

4. Timbers' Nat Borchers makes the best defensive play of the season

This is incredible:

Borchers was huge for the Timbers all series, and this play was the icing on the cake. Easily the best defensive play all year.

5. Conference finals best XI

Here's your best XI for the conference finals (yes, we include FBs, unlike MLS):

GK: Luis Robles (NYRB)

RB: Harrison Afful (Crew)

CB: Nat Borchers (PT)

CB: Michael Parkhurst (Crew)

LB: Waylon Francis (Crew)

RM: Ethan Finlay (Crew)

CM: Diego Chara (PT)

CM: Darlington Nagbe (PT)

LM: Justim Meram (Crew)

FW: Fanendo Adi (PT)

FW: Kei Kamara (Crew)

Bench:

GK Jesse Gonzalez (FCD)

CAM Mauro Diaz (FCD)

CDM Tony Tchani (Crew)

LB Ryan Hollingshead (FCD)

RM Dairon Asprilla (PT)

FW Blas Perez (FCD)

CDM Dax McCarty (NYRB)