After being the underdog in three consecutive playoff series, the Portland Timbers have reached MLS Cup final where, surprise, pundits are overwhelmingly picking the Timbers to lose — and lose badly — to Atlanta United. Bookies are currently setting the moneyline for a Timbers win as roughly 6:1 underdogs. Apparently not learning the lessons from the Super Bowl, Atlanta’s mayor is already planning a championship parade.
But if you’re expecting the Timbers players or coaching staff to be concerned, you might be surprised that, while they’ll politely listen to your opinion, they just don’t really care. The same cannot be said for the Stumptown Footy staff, as the always excellent Timm Higgins wrote about this morning.
At training this week, Liam Ridgewell was asked if the team found motivation from being counted out a couple of times, to which he joked incredulously, “A couple? We’ve been counted out every single game!”
“I don’t think any person thought that we might win. Except for ourselves, obviously,” the new father continued. “So, you know, everyone’s put it for Atlanta to win at home, and they’ve had a great season and this and that. It doesn’t make a difference when it comes to the playoffs, and it doesn’t make a difference when it comes to the final.”
The playoffs certainly are a second season for the Timbers. It wasn’t until the 28th game of the regular season, at home versus Columbus, that Portland won its first game after conceding the initial goal. Conceding the first goal and still getting the win has been Portland’s bread-and-butter in the postseason.
The reputation is not completely undeserved, says Ridgewell. “I think it’s been like that all season. It’s been sort of an up-and-down year and transition and stuff.”
All season long, Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese has stressed the need to take each game one at a time, but to also treat that game as if it were a final. In the postseason, where a loss means your season is over, the Timbers and Ridgewell are seeing just how well that mindset has prepared them for an extended playoff run — and in an even year, no less.
“Once you get into the playoffs, every game is like a final, and you just keep on rolling, keep on winning, and keep grinding out results,” said Ridgewell. “That’s what we’re looking to do on Saturday.”
Defender Zarek Valentin credits Savarese for fostering a winning attitude. “Our mentality has been fantastic throughout the playoffs. We’ve been such a cohesive group and obviously that’s something Gio preaches,” said Valentin. “But I also think it’s a credit to the staff he surrounds himself with because that’s been something that’s important to him. I think his support staff is incredible.”
The Timbers may have slipped off the national radar, Valentin says, but the fans who pack Providence Park know what the team is capable of.
“We have a lot of internal belief,” Valentin continued. “I think a lot of people in the Portland area that have come here see that and see the quality that we have. We may or may not get the respect we feel we deserve on a national level, but that’s fine. You can have the glitz and the glamour, stuff on ESPN, and the giant stadiums and all of that, and that’s fine. The Portland community and what’s going on here understand the magnitude of our team. We believe in ourselves, and at the end of the day, that’s really all that matters.”
Savarese turns it around of course, saying it’s the players that have made him successful: “I have been lucky to have the players that I have had who have worked very hard together to achieve good things,” Savarese said earlier this week. “There’s no coach without good players and players that are together as a team. I’ve just been fortunate to have always a group of players that always understood the importance of the shirt they were wearing and the importance of their role for the team and that the team is always first.”
Getting players to buy into a team-first mentality is something Savarese “lives for.” Persuading pundits and fans that the Timbers belong in this final, is not.
“I don’t work to convince people of our work,” Savarese said. “I am very secure in the work that we do. We’re not here because we convinced people now that we are the team. We worked because we believe in our team. We believe in our players, and this is credit just to all the work that everybody did.”
Diego Valeri is happy to have another game for the Timbers to play and, with it, a chance to place another trophy on the Providence Park mantle. The 2017 MLS MVP and team captain doesn’t see it as quite the David vs. Goliath-on-a-pogo-stick match that many pundits do.
Valeri’s teammates have routinely praised Valeri’s ability to simplify the game. Judging by the way he breaks down the opportunities awaiting the team on Saturday, it’s easy to see why: “We are the best team in the west; [Atlanta is] the best team in the east,” Valeri said. “Obviously they have an advantage playing at home. But it’s 11 against 11.”
Fifteen years ago, the book Moneyball was released, becoming the only book to be both a love story about Microsoft Excel and, later, a Brad Pitt movie. Since then, sports analytics has become a lucrative field as several American sports franchises have invested significant resources into number crunching. Casual sports fans have become familiar with newfangled advanced metrics; for soccer, that would be “Expected goals,” or xG for short.
Expected goals, in a nutshell, is a measure of how many goals a team should have given a variety of events that may have occurred. If Team A had 15 shots on goal from inside the box, Team A would likely have a better xG than Team B who took five shots from outside the box.
In theory, xG is a good measure of how well a team’s offense is creating chances, as well as how well the opposing defense is preventing those chances. Unfortunately, and as the table below shows, the metric may not be ready for prime time.
“So you’re saying there’s a chance…”
Talking to reporters about the team’s mindset when entering the playoffs, Valeri said, “We are more interested in how we can create chances, [and] how we can produce chances to score.” Valeri is a man of his word, as the Argentine leads all postseason players in chance-creation, according to Opta.
7 - @DiegoDv8 created seven chances for @TimbersFC in the first leg of the series, becoming the ninth player since 2007 to record 7+ chances created in a @MLS Cup Playoff match and the first to do so since Sacha Kljestan against Montreal in 2016. Mastermind. #SKCvPOR— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) November 30, 2018
10 - The @TimbersFC's @DiegoDv8 has created 10 chances in postseason play this year, seven coming from open play. No other player has more than six chances created in the @MLS Cup Playoffs. Creator. #PORvSKC— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) November 26, 2018
Saturday’s cup final will also be a match-up between two of the league’s most decorated foulers — second and third of all time, in fact — Atlanta’s Jeff Larentowicz (569 fouls committed, 2nd all time) and Portland’s Diego Chara (566, 3rd).