It feels quintessentially MLS to have the 2018 MLS Cup feature a team that everyone expected to be here facing a team that no one saw getting this far. Atlanta United have taken the league by storm since debuting last year, and if not for a late stumble they’d probably already have a Supporters Shield in their trophy case. The Portland Timbers, on the other hand, were probably not supposed to get past their first playoff game, but have produced some sublime goals to survive a dramatic path to the final.
How they got here: Atlanta was off their best form down the stretch, but used the time off the knockout round bye provided them to figure things out. A scrappy 1-0 win in the phone booth that is Yankee Stadium set them on their way to a 4-1 aggregate win over NYCFC that might not have even been that close. In the Eastern Conference final, they joined MPF lore by pouncing on the New York Red Bulls’ tactical errors, winning 3-0 at home before anti-soccering their way to a 1-0 road loss at Red Bull Arena.
Portland’s path has been more of a challenge. They overcame a second half red card to see off FC Dallas 2-1 on the road in the knockout round before facing the Seattle Sounders, their eternal rival, in the Western Conference semifinal. A 2-1 win at Providence Park set the stage for a playoff classic, as Seattle scored deep into stoppage time to force extra time. The sides exchanged goals there before the Timbers advanced on penalties. Finally, against Sporting Kansas City, all the scoring came in the second leg. KC appeared to be on course with a 1-0 lead, only for Sebastian Blanco to score one of the all-time great playoff goals, completely flipping the game. Portland struck again, Sporting tied things back up, but the Timbers scored once again in the closing seconds to go through 3-2 on aggregate.
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta, GA)
Kickoff time: 8:00pm Eastern
Projected Atlanta starting 11: (352) - Brad Guzan; Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez; Franco Escobar, Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi, Julian Gressel, Greg Garza; Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez
Tata Martino’s formation is often being called a 532, but it only really played like one in the last 70 minutes against the Red Bulls. He’s pushing those wingbacks up into the attack often enough that this is a true 352 for me. Of course, with literally every goal Portland has given up in the playoffs either being created on the right or scored by a player cutting in from the right, he could be tempted to revert to a 433, which would allow Atlanta to get Almiron up against Portland’s clearest weak link.
To do so, they wouldn’t have to start someone that isn’t in the projected lineup above. The wingbacks would become fullbacks, Larentowicz would move into the midfield, and Gressel would play on the right wing.
Projected Portland starting 11: (4231) - Jeff Attinella; Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell, Jorge Villafaña; Diego Chara, David Guzman; Andy Polo, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco; Jeremy Ebobisse
Giovanni Savarese, who has shown a tendency to put together specific tactical approaches for a given game both this year and in the past, could easily tinker here. We could see Polo dropped for a third center back (most likely Lawrence Olum, who Savarese prefers over Bill Tuiloma when they play with a back 5), for example, though that would reduce Portland’s speed on the counter.
Key player no one’s talking about (Atlanta): Michael Parkhurst
The Five Stripes couldn’t celebrate their win over the Red Bulls with complete joy, as a stoppage time ankle injury for Parkhurst could still have real consequences. All the talk from Atlanta is that Parkhurst is “fine,” but we all know that there’s a big difference between being “good to go” and actually good. Parkhurst usually isn’t relying on speed or quickness to marshal ATL’s defense, but if Portland can really test his lateral quickness and balance, we could see them gain the half-yard that is often the difference between a goal and a blocked shot.
Key player no one’s talking about (Portland): Andy Polo
Portland’s right back has been a huge problem in the playoffs. Valentin is, while beloved by Timbers fans, just a journeyman in terms of quality. Alvas Powell appears to take too many risks for Savarese, and lacks the passing technique to match well with how the Timbers play. Either way, it seems highly likely that Atlanta will be targeting that side again, and again, and again.
That’s where Polo, who is already a defense-first winger for PTFC, comes in. Don’t be surprised if his #1 job is to focus on shutting left wingback Greg Garza down. He’ll still have to provide some kind of attacking presence to draw players away from Valeri and Blanco, but mostly his role tonight is to protect Portland’s right flank as best he can.
Referee: Alan Kelly
Available TV: Fox (big Fox, not FS1), UniMas
Available streaming: Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer Match Pass, Univision Now, Univision Deportes En Vivo
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
we our friends have to say about it?: Dirty South Soccer has you covered from an Atlanta perspective, including this piece on a sports town that isn’t used to expecting a title. Stumptown Footy has the Portland angle, where they’ve found the Timbers feeling very confident despite being heavy underdogs.
What are you drinking?: I’m going to try a spicy Paloma. Specifically, Olmeca Altos plata tequila and lime juice on ice, topped with Jarritos grapefruit soda, and jalapeño.
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