The 2018 MLS Cup Final figures to be nothing less than a thrilling match as a record crowd of over 73,000 will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch it.
Atlanta United has stormed their way through the playoffs by beating both New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls by a combined 7-2 score. They missed out on the Supporters’ Shield on the final day of the season, but still posted the second highest regular season point total in MLS history. They are not short of playmaking stars and have an excellent coach in Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who will be coaching his final game with the club.
As for the Timbers, they scrapped their way through the postseason with some gritty performances away from home. After downing FC Dallas in the knockout round, they survived a thrilling match in Seattle in the West Semis and outlasted Sporting Kansas City in the West Final. They were the fifth seed in the Western Conference, but they did get red hot earlier in the season when they went 15 games without a loss, including a 1-1 draw against the Five Stripes.
Here is a deeper look at the 2018 MLS Cup Final:
These two sides played out a 1-1 draw in Atlanta back on June 24. Defender Larrys Mabiala gave the Timbers a first half lead and Julian Gressel equalized early on in the second for the Five Stripes. The only other matchup between these two sides was also a 1-1 draw back in May of 2017.
Players to Watch
Atlanta United: Miguel Almiron
Josef Martinez may be the goalscorer, but Almiron is the engine that makes Atlanta’s attack run. He’s capable of playing key passes into dangerous areas, tracking back defensively when called upon, and also scoring a goal for himself. Atlanta will only go as far as he takes them, which very well could be all the way.
Portland Timbers: Diego Chara
With Atlanta possessing such a fearsome attack, it will be up to Diego Chara to slow down any press forward. He’s one of the best, and most aggressive, defensive midfielders in MLS and if anyone can thwart a quick counterattack, it’s Chara. Cup finals tend to be cagey, defensive affairs and if he can get stuck in and use his strategic tackling to keep Atlanta at bay, his team can steal a goal on a counter of their own.
Matchup to Watch
Portland Fullbacks vs. Atlanta Wing Backs
If Portland has a weak spot defensively, it’s out wide where they’ve struggled all year long. Jorge Villafana is a solid left back option, but the other side has been a source of trouble for them as neither Zarek Valentin nor Alvas Powell have been all that convincing.
Atlanta will look to exploit that weakness by pressing forward with their own wide defenders Franco Escobar and Greg Garza. On the flipside, if those two get too far forward and Portland recovers the ball with space, the Timbers can hit with a quick counter attack using their speedy wingers who excel in space.
Atlanta United: Julian Gressel
The 2017 Rookie of the Year tends to go a little unnoticed with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez playing around him. However, he is just as much of an assist machine as Almiron. Both had 14 assists in the regular season and Portland will have to be careful not to focus too much on the Paraguayan while letting the youngster spray passes all over the yard.
Portland Timbers: Diego Valeri
The Timbers maestro is the centerpiece of their team and can make anything happen out of more or less nothing. He is a threat on any set piece opportunity and can spearhead any counter attack by feeding his teammates with dangerous passes or providing finishes of his own. A big game for Valeri usually means a big game for the Timbers, and that will be no different tonight.
As stated earlier, cup finals tend to be defense first affairs, but both of these sides have too much attacking talent to sit back and defend for 90 minutes.
The Timbers will be more than happy to allow Atlanta a little bit of possession. They may be weak defending in the wide areas, but their central defense and defensive midfield should be strong enough to hold off Martinez and Almiron. They will look to win the ball back and hit on the counter before regrouping into a solid defensive formation.
Atlanta, however, may be content to do the same. Portland has showed they aren’t much of a possession team and the Five Stripes may look to use a similar defensive game plan. Atlanta is better on the ball, but they also have the pieces to move quickly in transition after a defensive stop.
The first goal will be crucial in this game. If the Timbers can score early, they can bottle up and defend with the best of them against Atlanta’s dangerous forwards. If they can’t get an early one, their chances increase the longer the game goes scoreless. A lengthy, drawn out defensive affair would give Portland the chance to steal the game late as Atlanta presses ahead as the game gets later and the home crowd grows restless.
If Atlanta goes ahead early, they can also sit back and allow Portland to play with the ball while looking to add to the lead on counters as the Timbers push numbers ahead. The Timbers aren’t strong in possession and an early goal will allow the home side to exploit that weakness without really hurting their chances at a second, or even a third, goal.
Atlanta United is one of the strongest teams MLS has ever seen. It will be extremely difficult for the Timbers to keep up with them and it’s hard to see anything other than an Atlanta win. The Five Stripes will excite the home crowd and win their first ever MLS Cup with a 3-1 win.