2018 MLS Cup playoffs

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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.

FOLLOW LIVE – ATLUTD host Timbers in MLS Cup 2018

Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD
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Atlanta United needed just two years to reach its first MLS Cup upon the league in 2017, and they’ll host Saturday’s final against the Portland Timbers to boot.

[ FOLLOW: Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers — MLS Cup 2018 ]

It’ll be the final game in which Gerardo “Tata” Martino picks the Five Stripes team and patrols the sidelines at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as he’s set to depart the club at the end of the season (reportedly set to take the Mexican national team job). It could very well be another final outing for one of — or two of — Atlanta’s superstars on the field: Miguel Almiron is expected to move to Europe during the January transfer window, and Josef Martinez has long been linked with a move back across the Atlantic Ocean.

With Martino leaving and two of his South American dynamos perhaps joining him, Saturday could very well signal the end of the first era of Atlanta United, giving way to the next head coach and (presumably) another wave of up-and-coming stars.

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Portland, on the other hand, is the team that wasn’t “supposed” to be left standing in the Western Conference. Having already knocked off the West’s first- and second-seeded sides in the playoffs — after surviving the knockout round on the road — Giovanni Savarese’s side has proven itself as a formidable, unrelenting foe on the 2018 season’s final day.

Hit the link above to follow along through Saturday’s final, and check back on PST for full coverage and analysis after the game.

LINEUPS

Atlanta: Guzan; Escobar, Parkhurst, Gonzalez-Pirez, Garza; Nagbe, Larentowicz, Remedi; Almiron, Gressel, Martinez | Subs: Clark, Tuiloma, Powell, Olum, Flores, Asprilla, Melano

Portland: Attinella; Valentin, Mabiala, Ridgewell, Villafaña; Chara, Guzman; Polo, Valeri, Blanco; Ebobisse | Subs: Kann, Robinson, McCann, Kratz, Villalba, Barco, Vazquez

MLS Cup Final preview: Timbers prepared to strike

AP Photo/Brett Davis
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Things are going to get real loud in Georgia by the time 8 p.m. ET rolls around on Saturday night.

That’s when Atlanta United tangles with Portland Timbers, the Georgian outfit a heavy favorite to win its first MLS Cup and send Tata Martino, Miguel Almiron, and probably a few others away from United as all-time heroes (though they already qualify given their star power and the new nature of the club).

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Standing in their way? One of the most storied clubs in modern American soccer, guided by a first-time MLS manager whose outfoxed plenty of coaches in his day. Giovanni Savarese may not carry the name accolades of Martino’s but the job he’s done in Portland has surprised many and he deserves to have a shot of winning MLS Cup.

And lest we forget that Martino has been out-foxed in finals before: The 2013 Copa del Rey final and three Copa America finals, with the Spanish Super Cup for Barcelona against Atletico Madrid standing as his big final victory. The Copa America finals were Argentina twice losing to Chile in PKs, and with Paraguay blown out by highly-favored Uruguay; The Copa del Rey was Barca’s late loss to Real Madrid in Valencia.

Savarese has won three NASL titles with the New York Cosmos, who were admittedly the favorites each time. And his Timbers have won an MLS Cup away from home, claiming the 2015 final against Columbus with several players still in green and white on the roster (Diego Valeri, Jorge Villafana, Diego Chara, Lucas Melano, Jake Gleeson).

So, yes, Atlanta is the favorite to win, but don’t sleep on Portland in a one-off game with plenty of rest and time to prepare for a tactical challenge.


Regular season

Portland – 15W-10L-9T – +6 GD – 4W-8L-5T away

Atlanta – 21W-7L-6T – +26 GD – 11W-2L-4T home


Head-to-head

June 24 — D 1-1 in Atlanta — Goals: Mabiala (32′), Gressel (56′)


Playoffs

Atlanta
Beat NYCFC 4-1 (1-0, 3-1)
Beat RBNY 3-1 (3-0, 0-1)

Portland
Beat Dallas 2-1
Beat Seattle 4-4 (2-1, 2-3)
Beat Sporting KC 3-2 (0-0, 3-2)


MLS preview, leg 2: Top seeds RBNY, SKC have work to do

AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez
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Three more places are set to be booked in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs conference finals on Sunday. One home side leads, one trails and one enters the second leg on level footing…

[ MORE: Timbers top Sounders, in PKs, in epically insane 2nd leg ]

Sporting Kansas City (1*) vs. Real Salt Lake (1)

Conservative and defensive aren’t two descriptors typically, if ever, used to describe Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side, yet the first leg saw the Western Conference’s top seed set out to frustrate and stifle the six-seed on their home patch — at least in the first half, until Albert Rusnak scored his stunning goal from just about nothing in the 51st minute. Sporting responded brilliantly, though, never panicking and hardly showing RSL another sight of goal until the game’s final few frantic minutes.

It was Diego Rubio — super-sub for most of the season, save for a two-month stretch where he was the only option to start at center forward, and he produced a goal or assist per game — who bagged Sporting’s equalizer right on the hour mark, seconds after coming on. While some will surely be clamoring for the Chilean to start the second leg, it’s important to remember that game states drastically affect an attacking player’s quantity and quality of chances. For the vast majority of Khiry Shelton’s shift, Sporting resorted to uncharacteristically long balls out of the back. Once RSL went ahead, Vermes did the right (and obvious) thing in swapping the two.

In the second leg, Sporting will be the possession-dominant side on their home field, which will play perfectly into the hands feet of Shelton, whose hold-up play and tireless movement will pull defenders out of deeper positions, thus opening up half-spaces for Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi — the team’s two top scorers this season — in ways that Rubio just can’t. It’s vitally important that Sporting attack RSL through the center of the field and don’t fall into the trap and getting the ball wide and crossing it into the box more than 20 or 30 or — gasp — 40 times, as they’ve sometimes done in the past. Patience and persistence through the center will cause RSL problems they don’t want to deal with, and ultimately send Sporting through to the West finals.


Atlanta United (1*) vs. New York City FC (0)

Of the three higher-seeded sides hosting on Sunday, Atlanta United have the most straightforward path to victory: don’t lose at home, where they lost just twice all season and haven’t done so since dropping back-to-back games (against the no. 1 seeds from each conference) in May. There is no such thing as a lock in MLS, but this is as close as you’re going to find. [cue NYCFC winning 3-0 on Sunday]

Chances will be far more plentiful for both sides on Sunday, as opposed to the four combined shots on target (all by Atlanta, the visitors) on the postage-stamp field at Yankee Stadium.

The late-season return of Yangel Herrera from his season-ending long-term knee injury did wonders to strengthen NYCFC’s shoddy midfield down the stretch, but not even the 20-year-old Venezuelan destroyer (on loan from Manchester City) could grab hold of the first leg and coax the game in any particular direction, let alone one that was advantageous for his side. It’ll take a 10-out-of-10 performance from Herrera, and a couple of his teammates along the backline, to have any hopes of even slowing down Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Co.

Good luck.


New York Red Bulls (0) vs. Columbus Crew SC (1*)

The Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls find themselves in a fairly precarious position heading into Sunday’s nightcap: trailing the side that conceded the second-fewest goals (24) away from home in the Eastern Conference and the fourth-fewest in the entire league.

The first leg saw yet another tally of just four shots between the two sides (split evenly this time) and only 14 combined efforts, period. The Red Bulls did everything they could have hoped to do ahead of kickoff, but were undone by a moment of pure magical and ingenuity from Federico Higuain, who just seems to do those things this time of year, every year.

Columbus is an interesting foil for New York, as their tendency to play the ball quickly and vertically often negates the Red Bulls’ relentless press. Like in the first leg, the midfield essentially turns into a pendulum shuttling back and forth constantly without ever really accomplishing anything for all the miles traversed. If the Red Bulls’ backline can play a little tighter to Columbus’s wingers and forward(s), making those long balls a tad tougher to see and play, that’s all the likes of Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl will need to wreak havoc in Crew SC’s defensive half. That’s where the chances — and any likelihood of a comeback — will come from.

Portland outlasts Seattle in gripping playoff second leg

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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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.