MLS Cup 2018 – A Preview
The 2018 version of the MLS Cup will be held this Sunday December 9th in Atlanta. The game will be televised on Fox starting at 8 EST. Its a match featuring two standout teams with plenty of sideline stories to add to the intrigue. A season that began over six months ago and featured a slate of 34 matches found 12 teams headed to the playoffs.
The Knockout Round led to Real Salt Lake over LAFC, Portland Timbers over FC Dallas, NYCFC over the Philadelphia Union, and the Columbus Crew over DC United. Atlanta United, NY Red Bulls, Sporting KC, and the Seattle Sounders earning first round byes. The conference semi-finals saw Sporting KC, Atlanta United, and New York Red Bulls advance in regulation. However, it took the Portland Timbers kicks from the mark to overcome the Sounders as each team won their home leg by one goal.
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The conference championships saw two very different matchups. In their home leg Portland failed to score and had to settle for a draw with Sporting KC. However, Sporting failed to score the all important away goal meaning that they had to win at home. A scoreless draw would have sent them to penalties but any draw with goals involved and Portland would advance. But in the second leg it ended up not mattering as Portland won on the road in KC 3-2. Shocking in that KC had only lost 2 home matches all season. On the other side there wasn’t much drama. Atlanta opened at home in front of just over 70,000 fans and parlayed that into a 3-0 thumping of the Red Bulls. While the Red Bulls were able to win at home the 1-0 result wasn’t enough and Atlanta advanced on aggregate goals scored.
So its off to the final with Atlanta United hosting the Portland Timbers! Lets take a look and see how this stacks up and what it will take for each team to win.
Atlanta United’s Advantages
– There will be over 70,000 reasons the United will be favored to win on Sunday. Playing at home in any sport is always big. In a one match winner take all format its really big.
– This will be the last match Atlanta will have with their beloved manager Tata Marino. Martino and Atlanta management announced that they will not be renewing his contract and its an amicable split. Rumors continue to swirl that Martino will become the next manager for the Mexico National Team. In any event, taking a team to the final in only their second year of play is monumental and no doubt the players will give all the have to get him the Cup.
– Atlanta led all of MLS in scoring finding the net 70 times this season led by Josef Martinez and his record setting 31 goals. Martinez was recognized as the 2018 MLS MVP.
– Captain and key defender Michael Parkhurst should be back from his minor ankle injury and match fit.
– Portland gave up five goals in the playoffs from their defensive right side and Atlanta has the most attack prone left back in the MLS in Greg Garza. Look for Atlanta to bait Portland forward then counter down the left side.
– Portland was terrible in the postseason with expected goals allowed. In fact they were really terrible and from that stat they should have lost 4 of their five matches. Yes the advanced but against a scoring machine like Atlanta they need to improve….a bunch.
Portland Timbers Advantages
– The Timbers play in what is probably the fiercest rivalry in the MLS with the Seattle Sounders. Matches between those two are typically loud sell outs. The noise level from the opposing fans won’t distract them and may even juice them up.
– They are an incredibly fit team. They will attempt to play very tight in the back and run at Atlanta when they see openings. They will use that fitness to attack 50-50 balls and win more than their share.
– Set pieces are so important in soccer. And while Atlanta is pretty good on them Portland is very, very good. In a tight match like this a set piece goal can often be the difference maker.
– Home teams are 4-2 in MLS Cup finals. But in their only meeting this year Portland fought United to a 1-1 draw in Atlanta. And Portland has been much tougher on the road the last six weeks.
– The Timbers have their own MVP in Diego Valeri the 2017 MLS MVP. Valeri has scored 31 goals and added 23 assists over the last two years. He will provide lots of problems for United.
– Goalkeeping can make or break a team especially in a winner take all match like this one. Jeff Attinella has the tools and ability to come up with that one big highlight reel save. Brad Guzan may not have that ability anymore. However on the flip side goalkeeping is also about consistency. Guzan makes pretty much all of the saves you expect your keeper to make. Attinella has been prone to give up some very soft goals. Which Jeff shows up Sunday?
Those appear to be the strong points for both sides going into the match. Enough on each side of the ledger for either team to pull off the win. But I am going with Atlanta for two reasons. They are at home and the front duo of Martinez and Miguel Almiron is one of if not the best two man attacking pair in MLS history.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.