In some ways it feels inevitable that Atlanta United would be in the MLS Cup Final, in others it feels somewhat unbelievable. 2018 has been a historic year for the Five Stripes. Josef Martinez set records for hat tricks and goals scored, the team had the second best season for an MLS team all-time, and the fans showed up with United becoming the first MLS team to draw one million fans in a season. It has no doubt been a special year, but for it to become a legendary one the Five Stripes need to win one more game.
The team has reached this point despite injuries, a designated player that hasn’t panned out yet, the impending departure of its manager, VAR, pithy dismissive analysis based on hot-takes, and Mark Geiger. One more opponent stands in the way of the first championship for the city since 1995 and give a great sports city something special to celebrate.
The Timbers are in the MLS Cup Final... somehow?
If the Timbers hope to hear the incredibly hilarious Portland Anthem played as they hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, they will have to contain the best attack in MLS this year and get past a defense that has allowed just two goals in the playoffs. For a team that finished 8th in the overall table and, after firing off a 15 game unbeaten streak, won just five of their last 14 games, the Timbers might just be able to pull that off.
Portland is here thanks to playoff wins against a terrible FC Dallas team that only managed six victories in their last 17 regular season games, including a loss that saw them miss a first round playoff bye, a conference semi victory over an injury depleted Seattle Lodeiro-Ruidiazes, and a legitimately impressive win in Kansas City after a fairly disappointing 0-0 result to open the conference finals.
In truth, it isn’t that surprising that the Timbers charged into the playoffs and are in the final. The Western Conference has had a clear front runner for most of the year - Sporting Kansas City - with the remaining teams between 2nd-7th place being basically indistinguishable in terms of a clear favorite to challenge SKC. Once Seattle added Ruidiaz and he dragged the team away from enjoying a 10th place finish to second, it seemed like Brian Schmetzer’s tactic of playing turgid, defensive soccer for half the year had paid off and they would have the inside track to knocking off Sporting. That wasn’t the case as the depth issues the team had to start the year emerged again in the playoffs opening the door for Portland to grab a win in the conference finals.
In addition to his team being hot, manager Giovanni Savarese has experience managing big games. Though they might not have drawn 70,000 fans, the Venezuelan managed the New York Cosmos in four NASL Championship matches taking home three titles in the process. Keeping his cool and being emotionally grounded in these big moments has no doubt helped the Timbers in its playoff run. The Timbers also have several key players that are returning from their 2015 MLS title - Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana. That experience will be critical to draw on for the 2018 final as well.
Speaking of Liam Ridgewell, his play next to Larrys Mabiala, who appears to be ready to go on Saturday, will be critical as TiotalFootball discussed earlier this week. But in addition to the defensive duo, the team’s tactics, as discussed by Josh Bagriansky, will go through Valeri and Blanco in the attack. A key element of the team will be the play of Jeremy Ebobisse. In case you’ve been going to bed ahead of the weeknight 11PM Western Conference playoff start times, Ebobisse has been somewhat of a revelation this post season. His goal and assist in the playoffs may not be eye-popping, but his movement off the ball, ability to be a nuisance to defenders, and willingness to do the un-glamorous job of creating space for Valeri and Blanco make him a key element to the Timbers attack.
Portland may not be elite, but they got hot, got some breaks, Ebobisse is finally getting a chance, and Diego Valeri has been in the form of his career. Against SKC and Seattle the team gave up a lot of goals but came out on top despite the poor defensive performances. Valeri is good enough to make up for that with Blanco as his wingman, but the defense will need to be better against an Atlanta team that scored 70 goals this year.
It just sounds all too easy...
The Five Stripes will have a very clear job in this match - break down Portland, defend set pieces, and contain Valeri and Blanco. This is not as easy as it sounds. Atlanta United will need to get past a team that spent a great deal of 2018 putting seven or eight players behind the ball and relied on the individual brilliance of its two attackers to pull away with victories. To some degree it has worked, but in some ways it hasn’t. In its three away playoff games, Portland has allowed six goals and did, after all, lose 3-2 in Seattle. Atlanta meanwhile is undefeated at home in the playoffs, allowed just one goal, and in all of 2018 allowed just 19 goals at home in 17 matches.
As cliche as it is, the first goal will be critical in this match. If Atlanta can go ahead in the game and make Portland try to possess the ball, the Five Stripes can press and create chances in transition. This would be a nightmare for Portland. As much success they’ve had in the post season, the Timbers are a team that has some inherent weaknesses - specifically at right back. Should Zarek Valentin (he’s a real person) find himself one on one vs Miguel Almiron on a break-away often in the game, it will be a long evening for the Portland defense.
If there is one edge that Portland has over the Five Stripes it is in set pieces. Any team that eschews possession and has success needs to be adept at creating goals off of dead ball situations and the Timbers can do that. Time and again, Atlanta United has shown that it can be sloppy in defending set pieces. From Maxime Chanot going unmarked in the box for NYCFC to give up the lone home playoff goal to Mabiala scoring for the Timbers the last time they played in Atlanta, the Five Stripes will have to not only defend the initial free kick, but ensure that loose balls don’t turn into second chances for the visitors.
It sounds easy, but as we’ve learned countless times this season and since Atlanta United started in MLS, soccer is hard.