South American dynamic duos of Atlanta, Portland will define MLS Cup matchup
A month after 12 teams started the journey in MLS Cup playoffs, we now know that Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers will square off on Dec. 8 for the league's top prize. Here is a brief overview of the two finalists.
How they got here
Atlanta United: The first-round bye served head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino's team well, as they had little difficulty in overcoming New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals in a 4-1 aggregate victory. The Georgia side then tussled with Gotham's other team, the New York Red Bulls, and leveraged a strong 3-0 first-leg win to claim a 3-1 victory on aggregate to reach MLS Cup in just its second year of existence.
Portland Timbers: Similarly to their run to MLS Cup in 2015, the Timbers started things out in the wild-card round and downed FC Dallas on the road 2-1. That set the stage for one of the most memorable MLS Cup playoff series in history as they overcame long-time rivals Seattle Sounders 4-2 in a penalty shootout after a wild 4-4 draw on aggregate in the Western Conference semifinals. Portland then took out top seed Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference championship with a sensational three-goal second half in Thursday night's second leg, advancing 3-2 on aggregate.
Atlanta United: You would be hard pressed to find a more exciting duo in MLS than forward Josef Martinez and midfielder Miguel Almiron.
All Martinez has done in 2018 is set the regular-season goal-scoring record with 31 goals, blowing the doors off the previous record of 27. That form has carried into the postseason for the Venezuelan with three goals. With 53 goals in 58 total MLS matches, Martinez is arguably the most feared striker in MLS history.
Yet much of Martinez's success would not be possible without the playmaking of Almiron. The speedy Paraguayan has back-to-back 14-assist seasons in Atlanta and is one of the best in the league at creating and finding space.
Portland Timbers:Atlanta's duo may get more headlines, but Thursday's second-leg win in Kansas City showed why the Argentine pair of Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri is so dangerous.
After a couple of hiccups in year one in Portland, Blanco flourished in 2018 (10 goals, 11 assists) and his right-footed rocket from 25 yards out on Thursday was a perfect example of why opponents cannot allow him any space.
Valeri is capable of his own "wow" moments, too, but what makes him special is his intelligence. Valeri always seems to be a step ahead of everyone else on the field, and with Blanco at his side, Atlanta's defense has work to do.
What the players say
Sean Davis, MF, New York Red Bulls, on Miguel Almiron
"With Almiron, he can make a difference at any second. He's a guy I think every team circles before they play. We know that and we're doing our due diligence with film and I don't think it's too far off to say he's the most important player for them."
David Villa, FW, New York City FC, on Diego Valeri
What a player @DiegoDv8 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻— David Villa (@Guaje7Villa) March 4, 2017
The lone contest between Atlanta and Portland was a 1-1 draw back on June 24 in Atlanta, when most soccer-following eyes in the U.S. were focused on the World Cup. Still, the teams' stars were all in action and Portland used a strong counter-attacking display to almost come away with three points.
While homefield advantage is not a guarantee of winning MLS Cup, the team that has hosted has won five of the seven finals since the new MLS Cup final format began in 2011. Only Portland's conquest in Columbus in 2015 and Seattle's penalty shootout win in Toronto in 2016 saw the visiting team lift the trophy. This bodes well for Atlanta, who will have the backing of 70,000-plus in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
For the first time in MLS Cup history, two managers from Latin America will face each other in the final, with Portland's Giovanni Savarese of Venezuela going against Atlanta's Gerardo Martino of Argentina.