The Portland Timbers were given no chance to win the 2018 MLS Cup Final and, in the end, they didn’t.
But the Timbers fought hard and, outclassed by the highest spending team in MLS history, stayed in the match until an errant back pass and a class finish gave Atlanta United the winner. After a hard-fought ninety minutes, the Timbers had lost 2-0 and the second star for their crest would have to wait.
After an opening fifteen minutes that saw the ball held primarily in the Timbers’ half, Atlanta thought they should have been awarded a penalty only for referee Alan Kelly to wave away their protestations. After Julian Gressel made a streaking run down the Timbers’ left, the german midfielder hit a low ball into the box for the run of Josef Martinez. As the ball skipped to him, Martinez stuck out a boot and made contact, sending the ball toward goal but not on target. At the same time, Larrys Mabiala stuck out a boot, looking for the ball but instead making contact with Martinez who went tumbling to the turf.
In the 25th minute, Atlanta managed a chance from an unlikely source: after going all year without a goal, Darlington Nagbe went streaking into the Timbers box with a late run to the back post and found himself on the end of a curling cross from Gressel. Nagbe rose up and put a head to the ball, but could not steer it on goal as the chance went wanting.
Atlanta came closer in the 28th minute when full back Greg Garza sent a curling cross into the Timbers box that found Miguel Almiron in space at the back post. As the ball dropped to him, Almiron wound up and threw himself into an overhead kick that made contact and sent the ball bouncing off the turf and on goal, only for Jeff Attinella to make a diving save and push the ball wide.
As the home side kept up the pressure, ventures forward were few and far between for the Timbers, but regular diagonal runs through the heart of the Atlanta defense from Jeremy Ebobisse helped to keep United from fully committing to the attack.
Just as it looked like the Timbers might be in position to weather the storm, however, disaster struck. In the 39th minute, Ebobisse was forced into a back pass under pressure from Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst. The pass cut through the midfield and fell to Martinez just outside the Timbers’ box. Bulling past Liam Ridgewell then dipping his shoulder and touching the ball around Attinella, Martinez was in on goal and calmly put the ball away to give Atlanta the 1-0 lead.
The Timbers came close to evening things up with a quick strike down the pitch in the 43rd minute. As the Timbers broke forward, Diego Valeri played a rolling ball toward the end line for Sebastian Blanco. Bringing the ball under control, Blanco cut back and played a quick cross into the box for the head of Ebobisse, who launched himself at the ball and forced Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan to parry the ball away from goal.
Things got worse for the Timbers in the 54th minute when Atlanta lined up for a free kick deep in their attacking end. After a fancy run up, Almiron sent a curling ball into the center of the Timbers box where Martinez flicked it on toward the back post. The ball fell nicely into the path of Franco Escobar who hit it on the volley, sending a low shot skipping past a scrambling Attinella to put Atlanta up 2-0.
Now well behind, the Timbers threw players forward in an attempt to get back in the game. The push forward was almost paid off in the 63rd minute when Blanco got on the ball outside the Atlanta box and, running off a pick from Lucas Melano, carried the ball into box. With defenders surrounding him, Blanco hit a hard shot at Guzan who made the save, but spilled a rebound into the Atlanta box. The ball bounced freely, but no Timbers player could get to it before the home side recovered.
Atlanta nearly grabbed their third in the 71st minute when another cross found Martinez in the Timbers box. This time Martinez nodded the ball forward toward goal and the feet of Attinella. The Timbers’ keeper got down quickly and made the save, keeping some hope alive going into the final phase of the match.
As the final minutes of the match ticked down, the Timbers entered desperation mode, shooting whenever they were given a window. In the 88th minute, Dairon Asprilla attempted a low shot from outside the box that forced Guzan into a save, but this time the Atlanta keeper held the ball with Timbers arriving all around him, killing off the last chance of the match.