10 Players to Watch in the 2015 MLS Cup Final

Peter Galindo@@GalindoPWFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2015

10 Players to Watch in the 2015 MLS Cup Final

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    The 2015 MLS Cup final between the Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers is a great matchup for neutral fans.

    Both teams have incredibly quick attackers which should lead to plenty of excitement. Both of these sides also have strong squads, and there are a few players that are worth the price of admission.

    Five players from each club will be highlighted in this slideshow. Whether it's someone who is dealing with an injury or a standout striker like Kei Kamara, several names will be recognized.

    Here are 10 players to watch in Sunday's MLS Cup final. 

1. Michael Parkhurst

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    Michael Parkhurst has drastically improved since the Columbus Crew's 2-1 loss to the Montreal Impact in the first leg of the conference semifinals.

    He was integral to the Crew shutting down the New York Red Bulls for more than three hours of action, and now Parkhurst has another stern test on Sunday.

    The 31-year-old and his fellow center back Gaston Sauro will be tasked with monitoring a fast and technical Portland Timbers attack.

    It won't be easy, but Sauro has been magnificent in the postseason. Parkhurst has also been dominant in the last three games, but the Argentine has received more plaudits than the latter. 

    Parkhurst has a chance to receive some praise if the Crew can successfully stymie a Timbers attack that tore apart FC Dallas in the previous round.

2. Liam Ridgewell

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    Liam Ridgewell missed the second leg of the Western Conference final against FC Dallas due to a calf issue.

    Norberto Paparatto replaced the Englishman after he exited early in the first leg. The Timbers had a 2-0 lead when Ridgewell walked off the pitch, but they conceded three goals to Dallas without the designated player.

    Head coach Caleb Porter labelled Ridgewell's injury as "touch and go" before the second leg versus Dallas, per Jeff Carlisle of ESPN FC. 

    Ridgewell says that he'll be fine for Sunday, per Carlisle. The 31-year-old's fitness is the reason why he'll be worth watching. He'll be facing a strong center forward in Kei Kamara, who likes to stand idle in the box before making a quick run.

    Ridgewell and Nat Borchers must cover the space Kamara runs into, which means the former's calf will be tested often.

3. Waylon Francis

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Columbus Crew's full-backs have been spectacular for weeks.

    Right-back Harrison Afful was garnering some serious accolades against the New York Red Bulls, and rightfully so. However, left-back Waylon Francis deserves acclaim, too.

    Francis led the league in assists for a defender with seven during the regular season. The Costa Rican was also a top-10 tackler, per WhoScored.com.

    The 25-year-old carried that form into the playoffs. He was especially brilliant in the second leg of the conference semifinals versus the Montreal Impact, assisting the opening goal. He also tracked back whenever possible and allowed little room for the Impact on the left side.

    The defender didn't record an assist against the Red Bulls. However, he led the team in tackles and interceptions in the second leg, per WhoScored, and he was equally solid in the opening game.

    Francis will likely battle Dairon Asprilla on Sunday. The Colombian has scored one goal, combined with three assists in five appearances. This will be one fantastic duel.

4. Jorge Villafana

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    Portland Timbers left-back Jorge Villafana has steadily improved throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

    In a season with so many standouts at left-back, Villafana has gone under the radar. However, he's going to be a major influence in the MLS Cup final. 

    The American defender is a very technical player. He's constantly involved in the attack, he's an effective crosser of the ball and is still defensively responsible.

    Villafana will face Columbus Crew right winger Ethan Finlay on Sunday. Finlay was second in assists during the regular season with 13. He's been silent in the playoffs, but that can change in a one-off final.

5. Diego Chara

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    Diego Chara's presence in midfield has allowed head coach Caleb Porter to switch the Portland Timbers' system in recent weeks.

    Porter started the year with a more pragmatic style, but he now utilizes a system with just one holding midfielder as opposed to two. Chara is the man who is deployed in the deeper role and it has worked wonders.

    With Chara roaming around to snuff out any danger, it allows Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri to attack more often.

    Chara averaged 3.7 tackles and 2.2 interceptions per game, via WhoScored.com. He also attempted around 50 passes per match with a completion rate of 86.7 percent. This shows that he thrives in a deep role.

    The Colombian is the reason why the Timbers are fluid on both sides of the ball. With playmaker Federico Higuain lurking around the penalty area, it will be up to Chara to nullify the Argentine's influence.

6. Tony Tchani

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani have been two of the Columbus Crew's pillars over the last couple of seasons. They've also been exceptional in the playoffs, which is why the Crew are in the MLS Cup final.

    Trapp was lauded after his monster performance against the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the conference semifinals. It was a top showing in a big match, which was encouraging to see from a young player.

    However, it was Trapp's midfield partner who shone versus the New York Red Bulls in the conference final.

    The Red Bulls barely threatened until second-half stoppage time due to Tchani's influence. Sacha Kljestan, Felipe and Dax McCarty were immediately closed down by the Crew midfielder and couldn't find any space.

    Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara of the Portland Timbers are just as talented as the Red Bulls midfielder. If Tchani can nullify one of the league's best midfield trios, he can repeat the feat again in the MLS Cup final.

7. Darlington Nagbe

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    Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

    Darlington Nagbe has been one of the most discussed MLS players over the last couple of months.

    The midfielder has thrived in a central role that has given him more attacking freedom in the Portland Timbers' new system.

    This led to Nagbe's first U.S. men's national team call-ups, where he impressed the coaching staff, per Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl.

    It's clear that Nagbe will be a focal point for the Timbers on Sunday. His strength, speed and vision will be key for Portland as it tries to wear down Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani in the heart of midfield.

    No team has been able to stop Nagbe since the tactical tweak. There's a strong chance that he'll be a difference-maker again.

8. Ethan Finlay

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Ethan Finlay's 2015 regular season was a smashing success. He recorded career-highs in goals (12) and assists (13), but he's been less impactful in the playoffs.

    Finlay has scored just one goal and hasn't earned a single assist in four appearances. He's earned several chances in the postseason, but he just hasn't been able to convert.

    Even Finlay himself has noticed that he's not capitalizing on his chances. It's a positive to see how much he's evaluating his performances, so at least he's working hard to get back on the scoresheet.

    Despite his struggles, Finlay is still a danger man for Columbus. He was able to draw the New York Red Bulls defenders out of position before Justin Meram's goal in the first leg of the conference final. That is why he's a menace in every game.

    If Finlay utilizes his own advice and shoots more, then he'll be tough to stop in the MLS Cup final.

9. Dairon Asprilla

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    Dairon Asprilla joined the Portland Timbers last winter and failed to impress. He started in just 10 games.

    Almost every season, the MLS playoffs produce a breakout player. Asprilla had one goal and two assists in 26 regular-season appearances. He has one goal and three assists in just five games this postseason.

    Head coach Caleb Porter told the official MLS website that Asprilla just needed time to settle before making an impact.

    Porter said: "He’s settling in. He’s figuring it out. The more a player settles in the more he figures it out. He understands his role, understands his teammates, his coach and starts to trust everybody. I think you are seeing that in Asprilla."

    The Colombian has started three straight games but will be competing for a spot in the lineup with Lucas Melano for the MLS Cup final.

    Whether he starts or enters the match as a substitute, Asprilla will be a factor.

10. Kei Kamara

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Kei Kamara has scored 25 goals in the regular season and playoffs in 2015. It goes without saying that he's going to be a key player in the MLS Cup final for the Columbus Crew.

    Twenty-one of Kamara's 22 regular-season goals were scored inside the box, per the official MLS website. All three of his strikes in the playoffs have been in the area as well, yet few teams have been able to stop him.

    The Montreal Impact restricted Kamara's runs in the box in the first leg of their series, but couldn't repeat the performance in the return game. 

    Kamara's strength and leaping ability makes him a difficult striker to mark. It also helps having Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain pinging in crosses and through balls. 

    The Sierra Leonean has scored some massive goals, including the winner in extra time versus the Impact.

    If Kamara gets on the scoresheet in the MLS Cup final, he'll write his name in Crew folklore forever.