Oh dear god today’s the day. I’m not ready. You’re not ready. No one is ready. But to better prepare yourself as to what the hell will the green side of the MLS Cup will be doing, we spoke to Stumptown Footy’s Will Conwell to get his take on his feelings and emotions, how Portland could leave a city in tears, and what the Five Stripes can do to stop that from happening.
DSS: How are you feeling about Saturday?
SF: I am feeling pretty darn good, frankly.
This season has had its share of ups and down for the Timbers and after a late season swoon that saw the Timbers fall back into the pack, this playoff run really had the feeling of playing with house money. The Timbers have an aging core, a new coach, and above all else, it is an even year (which any Timbers fan will tell you is a very bad thing), so there are plenty of reasons that 2018 should have been a real letdown for Timbers fans. Despite all that, the Timbers are here, in Atlanta, ready to compete for the MLS Cup.
And while Atlanta United are quite good, they typically play the sort of soccer that the Timbers know how to deal with. The Timbers want teams to press forward and try to break them down, and on Saturday Atlanta will certainly do just that, giving Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco the chance to work a little magic and maybe add a second star to their kits.
Of course, the underdog narrative is a well-worn one, but it fits this Timbers team nicely. A common refrain in the league-wide has been, “but if they played that game ten times then [Timbers opponent] wins [number from seven to nine] of them”. When even the professionally neutral are couching their praise of the Timbers’ cup run like this, it makes each win all the sweeter.
DSS: How does Portland leave Atlanta as MLS Cup Champions?
SF: Play organized defense. Let Valeri be Valeri. Shore up the right flank. Play from the opening whistle.
The Timbers have built their post-season success on the back of their defense, bending but not breaking as they absorb pressure before releasing it in the form of a quick counter attack down the pitch. They let their opponents punch themselves out before landing the counter blow and -- as often as not -- following it up with another while their opponents are still reeling.
To that end, the Timbers have asked a lot on the defensive end from every player on the pitch, starting with striker Jeremy Ebobisse and ending with keeper Jeff Attinella. Particularly when dealing with strong, skillful players like those that propelled Atlanta to one of the best-ever MLS seasons, the Timbers will need to have their rotations down, track players movement, and be on the same page at all times if they want to weather the attacking storm that Atlanta will subject them to on Saturday.
If they do that however, the Timbers will have every opportunity to let Diego Valeri do his thing. What that might be changes from game to game, but one way or another Valeri will find a moment to influence the game. Whether that means setting up a teammate, making a late run into the box, or just drawing attention away from Sebastian Blanco, Valeri will find a way to have an over-sized impact on the Timbers’ attacking fortunes.
Of course, there is one more specific thing that the Timbers will need to do if they want to come away from the final victorious. The Timbers will need to figure out how to give Zarek Valentin -- or perhaps Alvas Powell -- some help on the right flank. Opponents have been targeting that wing and having success in recent weeks, and it is hard not peg that area of the pitch as the Timbers’ most glaring weak spot.
DSS: What’s your worst nightmare for Saturday?
Things could always go badly at Atlanta. Just look at the New York Red Bulls. One misstep from Tim Parker was all it took for the visitors at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to be taken apart. Particularly for a team like the Timbers who care so much about the game state in terms of helping to dictate play, giving an early goal to a team of Atlanta’s caliber would be deadly.
But that is not really the nightmare. A bad loss would be a bummer, but in the end this is still just the start for Giovanni Savarese’s time with the Timbers and regardless of how the final plays out, Timbers fans want their coach’s time with the team to be measured by what he does once he has truly been able to put his mark on the team. Injuries in the cup, with the next season only two months away, could derail what is an exciting future for the Timbers.
Still, I do think that Timbers fans would prefer winning the cup to not.