Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8) carries the Western Conference Championship Trophy over to the Timbers Army at Toyota Stadium.

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8) carries the Western Conference Championship Trophy over to the Timbers Army at Toyota Stadium.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

The Portland Timbers are going to their first-ever Major League Soccer Cup championship game. They face off against the Columbus Crew in a bid for the top honor in American soccer.

For those who may not have been paying attention the rest of the season, we invited Fox Sports soccer announcer – and Portland native – John Strong to tell you all you need to know to join in on Sunday.

How did the Timbers get here?

A few months ago, no one really thought the Timbers would be here.

“The fact of the matter is, with three games and two weeks left to go in the regular season, this team was not making the playoffs. And it took this remarkable offensive explosion for them even to qualify, and the momentum was carried in (to the post season),”  Strong told Think Out Loud.

It was, ironically, a mid-season injury that helped them. Midfielder Will Johnson broke his leg, which forced them to shake up their game.

“(That) forced the Timbers to adjust how they play. (It) forced Darlington Nagbe to come into the middle of the field where … he’s on the ball more often, and he’s more effective. And with him being more effective and really playing the best soccer of his career, everything else clicked into place. And what you already had was a very good defensive team, now had the goal scoring on the other end. And that made them, as we’ve seen, unstoppable.”

Who is the Columbus Crew?

The Crew are part of the MLS Eastern Conference, so their name may not be as familiar as Western Conference rivals like the Seattle Sounders. But they’re actually one of the 10 original teams in the MLS.

“(The Crew) is a team that has, in the last year and a half, tried to rebrand themselves. They got a bit stale in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio,” Strong said.

“They brought in a great coach, Gregg Berhalter. A very deliberate style of play. It’s all about attack, fly the bodies forward. And just like what the Timbers figured out right at the right time was how to score, what Columbus figured out right at the right time was how to keep the other team from scoring. That was the thing that was hurting them all year.” 

Who is going to win?

It’s hard to say. The only time this season that the two teams played, the Timbers walked away with a 2-1 victory. But that doesn’t make them the obvious favorite.

“It’s a match-up that you look at on paper and each team has their strengths, each team has quality players. There’s nothing obvious that either team has as an advantage over the other. Which makes it fun. It’s a matter of who shows up and who executes.”

Who’s the Crew player I should watch?

It’s all about Kei Kamara:

“They have the co-top leading goal scorer in the league this year, Kei Kamara who’s a wonderful story. He’s a Sierra Leon refugee. He’s a kid, who came to the U.S. and has made a career.”

Who’s the Timbers player I should watch?

For the Timbers it’s the excellently-named Darlington Nagbe:

“Has been with the Timbers his entire career. He’s been coached by Caleb Porter since he was in college, and they’ve known each other since Nagbe was a very young kid.”

What could it mean for the Timbers if they win?

“My hope is that an MLS cup win for the Portland Timbers will launch this team from what is already, as (Timbers majority owner) Merritt Paulson says, ‘a white hot core’ of fans still trying to build out to the rest of the city. My hope is that winning a championship Sunday can push the Timbers to that next level,” Strong said.

How can I watch/listen to it?

The game starts Sunday at 1 p.m. Pacific Time. You can catch it on TV on ESPN, online at WatchESPN (TV provider log-in required), and on the radio at 750/102.9 The Game (in Portland).