The Story So Far
And now MLS Cup Final.
The Portland Timbers at one point were given roughly the same odds as a snowball’s survival south of heaven of even reaching MLS Cup. But we’re here now, and how exactly did we get here? By grinding the season out, a long unbeaten run, and some bailing wire and some bubble gum (kidding). The Portland Timbers now find themselves on the cusp of a second MLS Cup in four years time after being a lowly 5th seed heading into the playoffs.
This team has guts and determination like I haven’t seen before and I think that’s reflection of the team’s first year coach Giovanni Savarese. His, “every game is a final” mantra has seeped through every nook and cranny of this team.
And it’s paid off.
They may have finished behind Energy Drink FC in the regular season, but Atlanta United showed they’re the beast from the east. A juggernaut of a team that boasts a guy that not only shattered the single season scoring record, but who also earned the Landon Donovan MLS MVP trophy for his 2018 efforts. This is a team that only lost seven times this term, 5 of which were on the road. They have only two losses in the friendly confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
So it comes down to two teams and 90 minutes.
One team was all but odds-on favorite to make it this far, the other - not so much. Can the Timbers once again stun MLS and take home their second cup in four years? Or will the two-year-old upstarts send their head coach off in a blaze of glory with the club’s first MLS title?
What To Watch For
Atlanta United (21-7-6, 69 pts)
I wouldn’t expect Tata Martino roll out the formation they used against New York Red Bulls, but it’s possible there could be different version of that - as I mentioned here, it’ll be a toss up whether he goes with three in the back or with the 4-2-3-1. Either way, the Timbers are going to have to be ready for whatever is thrown at them.
To be honest, this is a fun team to watch, at least when they aren’t facing the Timbers. There are so many weapons on this team I’m not sure where to start. The obvious is the freshly named MLS MVP Josef Martinez - he of the golden boot. He’ll keep the center backs busy most of the night, even when he doesn’t have the ball.
The offense basically runs through him and Miguel Almiron, their wily #10. I’m pretty sure that Almiron has license to roam, if past matches are any indication. He pops into space at the right time, nearly all the time. So whoever is marking him is going to have a hell of a night.
Now if he goes with the 4-2-3-1, look for Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe, or Tata could swap him out for for Jeff Larentowicz as the double pivot. Out on the wings, it’ll most likely be Hector Villalba and possibly Ezequiel Barco if they go with the Remedi/Nagbe combination in defensive midfield; Nagbe could end up on the wing if they go with Larentowicz, with Miguel Almiron tucked in right behind Martinez.
Tata Martino is known to move his players around the pitch behind Martinez and Almiron. Another player worth talking about is former Rookie of the Year, Julian Gressel. He can play in defensive midfield, out on the wing - even wingback in three center-back formation. He’s like their Swiss army knife in the middle of the pitch.
This is a team that can score on set-pieces at will; Miguel Almiron takes most free kicks around the box and has been know to hit goals from ridiculous angles. Look for them to try to draw fouls around the box, which they will, so the Timbers need to be disciplined enough to not let that happen too many times.
It all amounts to a deadly attack that has to be respected. Right now, they are on average scoring two goals a match. The Timbers, on the other hand, put the ball in the back of the net an average of 1.6 times per match.
All in all, there’s a reason they’re the league’s most dominant attack.
Portland Timbers (15-10-9, 54 pts)
On the road again, can’t wait to get on the road again.
How is that not an away chant?
Anyways, the Portland Timbers are staring down a freight train in Atlanta United. But that’s okay, it’s not like they haven’t faced some tough battles to get where they are. Gio Savarese will have his team ready to go Saturday night. And while it might be Gio’s first MLS Cup, he’s played and coached in finals with the New York Cosmos as well, so I don’t see the pressure getting to him. Cool as the other side of the pillow if you ask me.
I see no reason why he would stray from the 4-2-3-1; it’s what got him to the dance and why bail on it now? I mean he’s been known to throw a 4-4-2 out there in away matches. But at this point with MLS Cup on the line, he’ll go with the tried and true. The lineup you see to your right will be the starting lineup for MLS Cup. Again, why stray? I could possibly see Powell for Valentin, if he wants some speed down the flank. Though Powell has been known to switch off at the most inopportune times.
Valentin on the other hand, doesn’t have the speed that Powell does and only ventures into the attack every once in a while as he can get burned due to his lack of speed and just plain letting himself get pulled out of position. But, on the plus side, he’s got a high work rate and is a club guy through and through. That’s why I have a gut feeling Gio will go with Zarek; plus, he’s been there all season with 34 starts, two less than Diego Valeri.
Speaking of Diego Valeri, he and his partner in crime have combined for seven goals in the 2018 MLS Playoffs. They are the only two pair of teammates to score three or more goals each for a Western Conference playoff team since Mike Magee and Robbie Keane in 2012.
The only other question is Larrys Mabiala ready to go? From last report he was fully training and should be ready to go Saturday night - if not Bill Tuiloma can step in and not really miss a beat with Liam Ridgewell. The center-backs will have their hands full all night long with Josef Martinez that the better the pairing, the better the defense.
Not to be too much of a downer, but this could be Liam Ridgewell’s last match in green and gold - hopefully the Timbers can send him out on a high note. Down the stretch he’s been pivotal part of this Timbers squad. While I’ve been down on him at times, I still respect the player. I’d love to see the Ridgy roll one more time tomorrow night.
From the Timbers:
The Timbers will be holding a viewing party at McMenamins Bagdad Theater (3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97214) to watch the Timbers square off against Atlanta United FC in MLS Cup; doors open at 3 p.m. (Pacific). Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. (Pacific) and the event is open to fans of all ages. There, fans can watch the match with other Timbers supporters and Timber Joey and enter to win prizes, including a pair of vouchers to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies, a pair of Danner Boots and prizes from Sunset Porsche and Audi.
So if you aren’t in the ATL and don’t want to sit at home, head out there and check it out. I’m guessing that because the log is in Atlanta, Timber Joey won’t be there, but I could be wrong - wouldn’t be the first or last time.
This is my last Storylines (sniff) of the season and it couldn’t happen at a better time.
Atlanta United’s mayor is already planning a victory parade for something they haven’t won yet. Thank you ATLUTD for no doubt providing something to put up in the Timbers locker room and get the guys even more motivated.
Dating back to when he was head coach of the New York Cosmos in the NASL, Giovanni Savarese has qualified for the league final five times in six seasons. He has recorded nine wins in his 13 playoff games as a professional manager, and has made the league semifinals or further in all six seasons he has been a head coach.
In his first MLS season, Savarese recorded 15 wins, which is tied for the third-most wins by a first-year head coach. Notably, Savarese is just the second head coach in the last 14 seasons to advance to MLS Cup in his first year in MLS.
(h/t to the Portland Timbers and WhoScored.com for stats and info)