Atlanta United host the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup at the weekend. But with both teams wanting to counter-attack, will anyone ever want the ball?
The MLS Cup is upon us. It is the biggest game of the season, pitting the two Western and Eastern Champions against one another. This is the Super Bowl of MLS.
And this year, it is a rather riveting tactical match-up. While Atlanta United, the hosts, are widely seen as the superior team, coming off a 69-point season that would have won the Supporters’ Shield had it not been for a record effort by the New York Red Bulls, the Portland Timbers do offer an interesting counter.
As the season has progressed and he has seen his squad and side evolve, Tata Martino has increasingly welcomed in a deep-lying, counter-attacking style. Concerned by the vulnerabilities of his defence on turnovers, Martino opted for a more conservative approach that exploited his team’s own relative speed at the other end.
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Throughout the playoffs, Martino has largely used a 3-5-2 formation — that often turns into a back-five — with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron left as the primary attacking threats on the break. It obviously helps when you have two MVP-candidates to lead the line for you.
This tactic has worked wonders for Atlanta, however. They are better defensively than they have been all year and have still preserved the attacking threat through individual moments to make them dangerous. Wins against both New York clubs in the playoffs are proof of this.
But neither New York team played in a counter-attacking manner themselves. They did not ever ask Atlanta what they could do when they were given the ball. The problem for Martino and his players on Saturday evening is that they are playing another team that loves to sit deep and counter.
The Timbers are the master of the bunkering defence and blistering quick counter-attack led by one or two star attackers. It is their trademark tactic and it has delivered great results this season. In fact, their losses in form over the year can be traced back to when Gio Savarese has tried to change the style away from this counter-attacking strategy.
So playing against Atlanta, Portland will be more than happy to relinquish possession, especially playing away from home. But then Atlanta don’t really want the ball either. They would rather invite their opposition onto them and then look to burst forward into the vacated spaces. And so, we have two teams that want to play in just one manner.
This could, I will be honest, lead to a very boring game, both teams unwilling to come out of their natural shell. Or it could mean that the team who boasts the most tactical flexibility and bravery will win, able to play in a different style and succeed as a result. What it certainly means is that the first goal will be vital. Whoever gets it will be able to play how they want to; whoever does not, will not.
This not-wanting-the-ball phenomenon shows the changing nature of MLS. It is now about space and exploitation, not possession and control. These two teams thrive without the ball. It could be the one that avoids the ball the most on Saturday that wins, however odd that is to say.