Laying out the case for and against playing the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup Final, from an Atlanta United fan’s perspective.
With the Portland Timbers coming to Atlanta to play for the MLS Cup Final, I thought it fitting to write about the pros and cons of such a match-up. I wrote a similar post in the days following the results of the Eastern Conference semi-final when Atlanta United realized they were playing the New York Red Bulls.
That reaction was a lot more emotional and passionate than this one will be. However, I got a lot of this question from my friends: “If Atlanta is going to play in the MLS Cup, who do they want to play, Portland or Kansas City?” And honestly? I didn’t know how to answer. I was more worried about Atlanta even making it to the final in the first place. Luckily for me, that decision was made for me, so now we know: they’re playing Portland.
With that being said, I did post this tweet recently. Yeah, the Five Stripes are winless against Portland. But they’re also unbeaten against Portland, so I guess it’s all about the personal view on this match-up.
For me, it doesn’t feel like playing the best team in the West, but playing the hottest. Portland has been playing lights out in the playoffs, and now we get the reward of facing them. Without much ado, here is the case for and against playing Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup Final.
The case for
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This might sound ridiculous, but the most basic case for playing Portland? The fact that Atlanta even get to play in the final. Sure, most soccer pundits and followers of MLS (myself included) had Atlanta United making the MLS Cup Final. Yet, they’re an Atlanta team, and after losing the Supporters Shield on the final day of the season, making the Cup Final seemed less possible than before.
Another basic case for Portland: they’re really good. Portland didn’t get here without being the best team in the Western Conference. They proved their superiority with a fifteen match unbeaten run over the summer and with their current run in the playoffs. They also have talented individual players that always find a way to shine.
Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Diego Chara are some of the best players in the league at their respective positions. Valeri won last year’s MVP award after scoring a goal in nine consecutive matches and leading Portland to the first seed in the Western conference. Blanco is Valeri’s partner in crime and scored 10 goals and 11 assists this season. He followed up his strong regular season with another three goals in five playoff matches. Chara is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, if not the best. Portland are winless without Chara on the pitch in the last two MLS regular seasons (12 matches). All of this is to point out that Portland is really good and that Atlanta will be deserving of the Cup if they win.
Portland is also a well-supported team with one of the best fan bases in the league. Providence Park, where Portland plays their home matches, is always sold out and shaking with thousands of supporters. In fact, Atlanta fans should expect to hear Portland fans on Saturday night. Need more proof of Portland’s ravenous support? Look no further. It would be an honor to defeat a team with so much support behind it.
The case against
Portland is a frustrating team and Atlanta learned that firsthand back in June. Even at home in front of 45,000 fans Atlanta could not find a game winner. Portland scored early, sat back, and dared the Five Stripes to break through and win. An ideal opponent is a team that keeps things open and wants to attack, leaving space for Atlanta to counter-attack after forcing a change of possession. Portland is not that ideal opponent. If the Timbers have their way, they will frustrate the Five Stripes and may come out winners.
Portland’s also been here before, last winning the MLS Cup in 2015. That final also happened to be on the road in a tough environment at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus. In fact, since MLS starting awarding home-field advantage in the MLS Cup to the team with the highest regular-season point total back in 2011, only two road teams have won the final. Portland was the first to do it. Their experience might be a deciding factor in this final and a strong reason to want to avoid playing Portland.
Their coach is also very experienced. In the six years that Giovanni Savarese has managed a professional team, he has taken each team to a final in five of those six years. Even more impressive is that he’s led those teams to three wins. Savarese is experienced and successful, and that alone should be a cause for concern. He clearly has the expertise and leadership to earn Portland the trophy.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, Atlanta is winless against Portland. As great as both of these teams have been in the last two seasons, both match-ups have ended 1-1. In the same way, Atlanta is winless, they are also unbeaten. However, there are only a handful teams Atlanta has yet to beat, making Portland a worrying opponent.