Liam Ridgewell

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Champions! Atlanta United win MLS Cup in second season

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Atlanta United didn’t need all that long to earn the right to call themselves the champions of MLS, realizing the two-year-long dream of Arthur Blank and Gerardo “Tata” Martino with a 2-0 victory in the 2018 MLS Cup final on Saturday.

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2018 MLS MVP — and single-season goals king (31) — Josef Martinez put his prints everywhere as the Venezuelan bagged a goal and an assist in front of an MLS-record crowd of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Atlanta enjoyed plenty of possession — more than 56 percent in the first half — but the Timbers midfield and defense did an admirable job to funnel everything from Atlanta out wide once in the final third. From there, Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala could comfortably head cross after cross away from danger.

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All of the pressing, harrying and chasing finally paid off for Atlanta in the 39th minute, when center back Michael Parkhurst pushed higher and higher up the field and tackled the ball away from Jeremy Ebobisse. Martinez was lurking atop the penalty area — narrowly onside — and knew exactly what to do with the ball when it fell to him.

Brad Guzan was called into action for the first time not long after Martinez’s goal, diving to his right to deny a goal-bound header from Ebobisse.

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Atlanta doubled their lead in the 54th minute, courtesy of a cool finish from Franco Escobar at the back post. Miguel Almiron floated his free kick into the box and Martinez flicked it as the first red shirt in the box. Jorge Villafaña was a full yard behind everyone else in white, keeping Escobar onside, but there was still plenty to be done from there.

After just two seasons in MLS, Martino, who coached his final game in Atlanta on Saturday, has secured his place as one of the league’s great influencers — both in terms of the global interest and respect he commanded, and the tactical daredevil mindset he displayed.

The entire organization in Atlanta has raised the bar in MLS — both in terms of on-field product and the numerous financial investments made by the organization — making Saturday’s finale a thoroughly fitting result.

Sporting KC 2-3 Portland: Blanco stunner helps Portland to finals

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The home side dominated the opening 45 minutes, but were downed in part by an absolutely stunning goal as Sebastian Blanco‘s incredible long-distance snipe helped send 5th-seeded Portland into the MLS Cup final after a 3-2 second-leg victory over top seed Sporting KC. The victory followed a 0-0 result in the first leg from Portland that left Sporting KC vulnerable to the away goals rule, and that they were, with the third goal from Diego Valeri only coming deep into stoppage time with Kansas City pouring forward knowing they needed another with the score level at 2-all.

The game was a tale of two halves, as Portland was snuffed out in the first half as Kansas City proved the better team. After the break, the visitors turned the game on its head, with Blanco’s stunner the start. Diego Valeri provided the second, cancelling out a pair from Daniel Salloi and Gerso.

Sporting KC was in control across the opening 20 minutes, and earned an opener as a result. With four shots on target already on the board, the hosts took advantage of a trio of defensive mistakes by Portland, with Salloi capping off a scrappy finish. Johnny Russell looked to get around Liam Ridgewell down the right, and the Portland defender accidentally tapped the ball towards the middle of the box. That allowed Diego Rubio to feed Salloi, and his cross to the far post left Jeff Attinella in no-man’s land and saw Salloi finish it off past Zarek Valentin hoping to guard the line.

KC continued its dominant play, and looked to have a second as Salloi headed in off a corner, but it was whistled out for a foul on Ike Opara who attempted to back down Attinella as the ball floated into the far corner.

Diego Valeri had a hamstring scare in the 26th minute, and while he eventually came back on, Portland hardly saw a touch of the ball past the half-hour mark. KC had another goal ruled out in first-half stoppage time as Rubio slammed home a one-on-one finish after Russell fed him through, but the flag correctly went up to pull it back. Salloi was injured in the buildup, drawing a yellow card for David Guzman and leaving the goalscorer in a heap.

After halftime, Portland still needed a moment to get them back into the game, and they got that moment. Blanco unleashed the goal of the playoffs, a right-footed curler with space at the top of the box.

Portland took that moment of brilliance and built on it, flipping the game upside-down and earning a second, shocking the home fans and finishing things off. Valeri was the man to finish it off, with his head after Tim Meila had tapped the ball into the air as Jeremy Ebobisse looked to be through on goal.

On the hour mark, fans at Children’s Mercy Park began to throw trash onto the field, at which point the referee pulled the players off the field momentarily. Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was livid at those in attendance, screaming at fans to cut it out and let them finish the game. They returned to the field a few minutes later, and referee Mark Geiger was then in the spotlight as he awarded KC a free-kick inches outside the left edge of the box after Zarek Valentin fouled Gerso Fernandes, with the home side screaming for a penalty.

The game picked up in pace as Sporting KC needed two goals to advance and the panic set in. A 78th minute long-ball for substitute Gerso but was just out of reach with fellow sub Krisztian Nemeth ready to pounce. They’d draw back level with nine minutes to go as Gerso was the man to even it up . That ignited the game as it charged towards full-time, but it also brought sloppiness as KC became more desperate. Despite nine minutes of stoppage time, they had little left in the tank. A charging Gerso had the best chance, but obliterated the ball miles over the bar. The game was killed off as the Timbers caught the hosts poured forward, and on the break with nobody back, Chara found Valeri free for the third goal.

MLS Conference Finals: All to play for out West

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Ninety minutes plus stoppage time of soccer is all that separates two clubs from competing for ultimate league glory in the MLS Cup final.

Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers have it all to play for in their second-leg matchup at Children’s Mercy Park, with neither side breaking the deadlock in the first leg in Portland. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United has one foot already wedged in the door for MLS Cup, after a thrilling 3-0 victory over a demoralized New York Red Bulls side that is feeling the crushing weight of history.

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Let’s take a closer look at each conference’s second-leg matchups:

Sporting Kansas City (0) vs. Portland Timbers (0)

Sporting KC will hope that the Blue Wall at Children’s Mercy Park can help will the side to victory and a return to MLS Cup.

Peter Vermes’ side held off waves of Portland Timbers attacks last Sunday evening, holding on for a scoreless draw on the road. Sporting KC was also aided by the use of VAR, which correctly judged Liam Ridgewell to be offside when he headed a free kick off the post, eventually headed in by David Guzman. Diego Valeri was mostly marked out of the match, though Sporting KC’s star winger Johnny Russell had a pair of gilt-edged chances that he blasted over the bar.

Heading into this second leg, with just four days of rest, both teams will hope they can muster enough energy to get a goal and change the complexion of the game. The Timbers know that just one goal on their part will completely open up the game, forcing Sporting KC to try and get two goals in regulation. It will be a tough job for Portland though,. Sporting KC is unbeaten in its last eight patches and in the club’s last 12 matches with Portland, it has recorded a clean sheet in nine of them.

In the Timbers favor, the club has scored in seven-straight away matches, including beating FC Dallas on the road in the MLS Playoffs knockout round.

New York Red Bulls (0) vs. Atlanta United (3)

The New York Red Bulls are probably the only club happy that the second leg comes sooner than normal after the first leg.

Chris Armas’ tactical switch completely backfired, as Atlanta United scored in the first half to open up the game before the Red Bulls became much too open defensively, allowing goals from Franco Escobar and substitute Hector “Tito” Villalba late in the second half. It’s going to be a herculean feat for the Red Bulls to come back from this three-goal deficit, and Atlanta United will be poised to sit back, absorb pressure and ensure the final result.

It will either be a coronation or a funeral at Red Bull Arena come Thursday, as some of the world’s top young stars take the field once again. The Red Bulls need Tyler Adams’ dynamic running and energy in midfield, Kaku to create as the No. 10 and Bradley Wright-Phillips to find his finishing touch again. On the other side, the center-back trio of Michael Parkhurst, Leandro González Pírez and Jeff Larentowicz will be tasked with shutting down the Red Bulls attack, holding on to give Atlanta United one last home game this season.

Portland outlasts Seattle in gripping playoff second leg

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Portland and Seattle staged a second leg befitting of their rivalry, as the Timbers knocked their rivals out of the MLS Cup Playoffs with a gripping win in Seattle early Friday.

A chaotic ending put the match in extra time, where Dairon Asprilla sent a bullet header into the back of the goal off a Diego Valeri cross to make it 4-3 on aggregate only to see a penalty make it 4-4 four minutes later.

Will Bruin hit the post with Seattle’s second penalty attempt and Jeff Attinella stopped Osvaldo Alonso on the next Seattle attempt. Stefan Frei stopped Liam Ridgewell‘s winning bid, but could only get a hand on Asprilla’s winning hit.

The triumph sets Portland up for a meeting with either Real Salt Lake or Sporting KC in the Western final.

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The Sounders entered the match down 2-1 but holding an away goal. That meant 1-0 would be enough for them to get into the conference finals, and an awful Portland mistake put them in the catbird seat.

Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella bungled a cross and left it on the doorstep for Raul Ruidiaz, who made it 2-2 on aggregate in the 68th minute. Seattle, as it stood, was headed back to the Western finals.

Enter Sebastian Blanco.

The Argentine took a lay-off from Dairon Asprilla and hit a low ball that caught Stefan Frei in a hard place.

Portland was back in front, though the Timbers were denied a bid to close the match out via Frei’s in-tight denial of Lucas Melano.

Stoppage time made it 2-1 to Seattle, when Ruidiaz unleashed this beauty following a weak headed clearing attempt from Blanco.

The match went to extra time, and Valeri’s long cross was met at the back post by the leaping Asprilla.

The score line stayed the same for less than four minutes, as a Blanco handball sent Lodeiro to the spot and the Sounders star did not miss his chance to make it 4-4.

Ruidiaz had a goal pulled back for a handball as the match continued to deliver drama en route to kicks.

Some Timbers players celebrated after extra time, apparently thinking they advanced via away goals (away goals in extra time are no longer a tiebreaker). That’s… problematic.

MLS: Timbers beat Whitecaps to top West; RSL out, SKC fall to 5th

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Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

The standings: Timbers clinch the West’s 1-seed; Whitecaps fall to West’s 3-seed

The game: For the entirety of the regular season, no one wanted to finish top of the Western Conference. That lasted until the final day of the season, as the Vancouver Whitecaps, who sat atop the West for the last two months, lost 2-1 to the Portland Timbers and fell all the way to the 3-seed (and the knockout round) on the back of the Seattle Sounders’ 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids. Kendall Waston put the visitors ahead on the half-hour mark, but Liam Ridgewell quickly equalized and Darren Mattocks came back to bite his old team with the game-winning goal in the 48th minute.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

29′ — Waston heads home from a free kick for 1-0 — Waston has had himself a pretty good month or so, turning into a regular goalscorer for Vancouver and helping Costa Rica clinch their place at the 2018 World Cup.

32′ — Ridgewell responds quickly, and it’s 1-1 — The initial shot was saved by David Ousted, but the rebound didn’t fall very far and Ridgewell was quick to pounce.

48′ — Mattocks beats his former club, makes it 2-1 — Vytautas Andriuskevicius (Vytas) cut the ball back for Mattocks, and the Jamaican picked out the 40 square inches that weren’t completely obscured at the near post.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Darren Mattocks

Goalscorers: Waston (29′), Ridgewell (32′), Mattocks (48′)


Real Salt Lake 2-1 Sporting Kansas City

The standings: Sporting KC clinch the West’s 5-seed; RSL finish 8th in the West

The game: On the bright side, RSL’s revival, which began after three games when Jeff Cassar was fired and Mike Petke was named the new boss, is complete. On the not-so-bright side, so is their season. Petke galvanized a young RSL side over the course of six months and turned them into legitimate playoff contenders, only to come up short on the final day of the regular season. Luis Silva and Brooks Lennon each bagged a goal in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Sporting KC. Speaking of not-so-bright sides, Sporting’s regular season ends with three losses and two draws from their final five games. In that span, they went from competing for the West’s no. 1 spot, to something of an afterthought with a trip to the Houston Dynamo in the knockout round on tap.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

3′ — Silva slots past Dykstra for 1-0 — You could count the number of major mistakes made by Ike Opara this season on one hand, even after this early blunder.

41′ — Lennon gets two chances, makes it 2-0 — Silva drew the attention of four defenders and managed to move the ball wide to Lennon. Andrew Dykstra did well enough to make the initial save, but the rebound fell right back to Lennon, who left no doubt about it with his follow-up.

89′ — Opara heads home a free kick to the near post — Graham Zusi’s free kick was low and where only Opara could get to it. Opara’s header was low and where Nick Rimando couldn’t get to it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Nick Rimando

Goalscorers: Silva (3′), Lennon (41′), Opara (89′)