Need to get ready for the MLS Cup Final? Here is a breakdown of what to expect from the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United.
The long and tiring MLS season is almost over. The Portland Timbers are taking on Atlanta United in MLS Cup 2018 this Saturday. There are a few different storylines to follow, not only during the game but also before and after.
The City of Atlanta
The city of Atlanta has quickly become Soccer City, USA. In just their second season in the MLS, Atlanta United has averaged over 53,000 fans per game. The city has embraced soccer in the American topflight from day one and has continually broken attendance records. This includes a 72,243 single regular season match attendance record set back in July against the Seattle Sounders.
It can only be expected that the entire city will be booming ahead of the Final on Saturday, with some incredible pregame festivities.
It is not controversial to say that the Portland Timbers are coming in as the underdogs Saturday. Atlanta is one of the best expansion teams in league history and after losing out in the Supporter’s Shield race, they are drooling at the chance to win their first major trophy. Not to mention that they will be playing at home, a place they only lost twice in during the regular season.
That being said, Portland has come into form as of late. They by no means were the favorite to make it to the final. But after demolishing Dallas in Frisco, beating Seattle at CenturyLink in penalties and beating SKC away from home, it seems Portland has embraced the underdog status and should not be brushed aside lightly. Defender Zarek Valentin sums up their mentality well:
[We are the] underdogs dude. They gave Redbulls almost a better chance than we did. So, you know what? As Merit [Paulson] said in his interview, we’ll take that. People don’t want to respect us. We’re gonna go into Atlanta it looks like and, you know what? Put all the money on them. Why not? We’ll see what happens but we believe in ourselves.
After all, in 2015 the Portland Timbers hoisted the Cup after beating the Crew in Columbus 2-1.
Gio vs. Tata
There are two different storylines surrounding the coaches of both sides. One is starting his dynasty, the other is ending his. Tata Martino, named MLS Coach of the Season, has announced his plans to leave Atlanta at the end of the season. Saturday will be his last game with the club that he helped bring to life and he wants to deliver the cup to his faithful fans and players. He wants to end with a bang.
Tactically, Martino sets up his side in a 3-5-2, but what can quickly shift into a 5-4-1 while defending. But don’t let the defensive shell fool you, Atlanta is incredibly quick on the counter and within a few passes and can break the most disciplined of backlines. With flashy players coming through the middle such as Almiron and Nagbe and wingbacks bombing down the line, most teams don’t know what hit them until Martinez picks up yet another goal.
On the other end, Portland Timber’s head coach Giovanni Savarese is just starting his reign in Portland, but don’t take that as inexperience. Though this is his first year in the MLS, Gio has won three finals in the past five years with the New York Cosmos in the NASL. He knows how to prepare a team for a final, even with the odds pitted against him. And there is no better way to start your MLS coaching career with an MLS Cup victory.
Savarese’s 4-3-2-1 line-up differs from Atlanta’s slightly, but enough to make for an interesting dynamic. Where Atlanta excels with their front line and defensive organization with the three centre-backs, Portland wins games in the midfield. Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco have been the two difference makers this year and know how to show up in big games. Atlanta will be in trouble if they let Valeri and Blanco start dictating play.
Darlington Nagbe and the Portland Timbers
One of the most interesting storylines of Saturday surrounds Atlanta midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Caleb Portland left as the head coach of the Timbers after losing to Houston in the Western Conference finals last year, Nagbe followed suit made the move to Atlanta. And now twelve months later he gets to play his former team who he won MLS Cup with just three years ago.
Porter liked to move Nagbe around in the midfield, either on the wing, playing as a ten, or more of a box to box midfielder. But in Atlanta, the US international has almost solely played in the box to box role, being instrumental in starting counter attacks and releasing players in front of him. Nagbe can’t slack on his defensive duties Saturday either. It will be up to him and Gressel to help Remedi in his defensive duties to keep the Portland midfield from doing what they do best.
A New Form of Dominance
There are many arguments for who the best teams have been over the past few years. During the regular season, the New York Red Bulls have won three out of the past six Supporter’s Shields, but have never won MLS Cup. Sporting Kansas City has won three out of the past seven US Open Cups but has only won one playoff game since winning the cup in 2013.
But it seems that in the Western Conference, there is a new region of dominance. Including Saturday’s final, either the Seattle Sounders or the Portland Timbers have been in the past four MLS Cup finals. Somehow the Cascadia region has found the secret to making final appearances, setting themselves up for postseason success. In each of the four seasons, the Timbers and the Sounders were by no means expected to make it to the final. But each year they have found a way. The Timbers won it all in 2015 and the Sounders in 2016. Seattle has continually been a postseason threat, making the playoffs every year in its MLS history. Portland has slowly made themselves relevant in the Cup picture as well. A win Saturday would mean three of the past four Cups have gone back to the Pacific Northwest.
So will we see a 13th different MLS club lift the trophy in front of their home supports? Or will Portland become only the 6th club in league history to lift the Cup multiple times? My prediction, a 3-1 victory for the Five Stripes of Atlanta United. Kickoff Saturday will be at 8 pm ETS and you can catch the match on FOX.