Atlanta United will host Portland on Saturday in the MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
A cadre of MLS analysts provided their takes on the keys to the title game.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity in some cases.
Bobby Warshaw, former MLS player and now analyst on MLSSoccer.com
Portland will win if: Jeremy Ebobisse can pull Atlanta United centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez out of position. Gonzalez Pirez, for all of his wonderful talent, has a tendency to wander. If Ebobisse can pull him out with his movement, then Diego Valeri will get more room to operate, and anytime Valeri gets better looks, the Timbers’ chances to win rise quickly.
Atlanta will win if: Jeff Larentowicz (or anyone else) can nail a killer pass from the spot he got his assist against Red Bulls (in the first leg). That’s the soft spot in Portland’s defensive shape. The Timbers clog the crap out of the middle but can get a little lax in those areas wide of the center midfielders and in front of the center backs (because Sebastian Blanco is often waiting to go on the counter.) Atlanta will get the most time and space on the ball in those zones, and if they hit dimes from there, Portland won’t have an answer.
Portland will lose if: Blanco or Valeri don’t make at least one special play. Portland’s general attacking plan isn’t strong enough to systematically create chances; they need the stars to do the unexpected. It doesn’t have to be to the level of Blanco’s blast versus Sporting KC, but it needs to be something special to break down Atlanta’s backline.
Atlanta will lose if: Miguel Almiron is wasteful. And it’s something Atlanta fans don’t like to say out loud but whisper to their friends when no one can hear: Almiron has a tendency to be wasteful. I expect Portland to play a 5-3-2 and add an extra number to the zones Josef Martinez roams and do everything they can to make sure Martinez doesn’t get space in the box. That will leave room for Almiron. As a Five Stripe fan, you’re perfectly fine with Almiron picking up the slack ... but you also know he’s good for a few missed chances, and you just hope they don’t come at the wrong time.
Tony Meola, SiriusXM co-host of Counter Attack (channel 157), and former MLS Cup MVP
Portland will win if: It is able to sustain pressure from Atlanta United can catch them on the counterattack.
Atlanta United will win if: The game opens up and becomes a bit of a track meet. Atlanta is best at open space, especially in middle third when Almiron can get on the ball and run at defenses with trailing runners. That’s when they are the most exciting to watch. If it turns into that type of game, it’s a huge advantage for Atlanta and they will win.
Portland will lose if: It loses its defensive shape. If they open up too much and send too many players forward and aren’t able to possess the ball in critical areas of the field.
Atlanta United will lose if: It allows too many counterattacking opportunities for Portland. It’s where Portland operates best and feels the most comfortable. It’s how they’ve been able to go on the road and beat teams.
Brian Dunseth, former MLS player and now SiriusXM co-host of Counter Attack (channel 157)
Portland will win if: Defensively they stay incredibly compact while at the same time recognizing opportunities to counterattack is on, they have to go and they have go in numbers.
Atlanta United will win if: It plays the style it has played its entire history: wide open, aggressive, intelligent and capitalizing on the mistakes of opponents.
Portland will lose if: It allows Atlanta United time, space and movement off the ball without immediate pressure because that’s when they are at their most dangerous.
Atlanta United will lose if: It fails to punish the mistakes of its opponents and finds itself in uncomfortable situations with the pressure of the home crowd in the final 20 minutes.
Maurice Edu, former MLS player and now B/R Football analyst and Fox Soccer personality
Portland will win if: It had success in the season playing in a defensive block, absorbing pressure and striking on the counter. These last few games in the playoffs, it found success by being a slightly bit more aggressive and pushing higher up the pitch. But I think Portland can win by making the game ugly. That’s when you’ll see Atlanta struggle a little bit. If they aren’t able to match the intensity that Portland can bring – and they know they can get goals – with Valeri and Blanco.
Atlanta United will win if: It continues playing well in the playoffs. They are a team that has changed from creating beautiful goals and playing attractive soccer to a team that will win at whatever cost. If it’s surrendering possession, it doesn’t matter. I think continuing that theme of being really stout defensively with guys like Martinez, Almiron and even Hector Villalba coming off the bench, they have goals from every part of the pitch. Being sound defensively and knowing that you will get opportunities from guys like that up top, they are going to score goals.
Portland will lose if: Its not solid defensively. They are a team that for the most part were playing in a more defensive shape and looking to counter. If they leave themselves a little bit too open by being too aggressive, Atlanta is the kind of team that has too much firepower up top to strike on counterattacks. They can create goals going forward. If Portland isn’t compact and sound defensively those gaps will be exploited by Atlanta.
Atlanta United will lose if: In the games they have lost this year, most times is because it didn’t match the intensity. They struggled against Red Bulls in the regular season because they couldn’t match the energy and aggression Red Bulls brought to that game. In the last couple of series, they really changed their style of play and are a team that doesn’t care if it’s not as attractive to the eye as it was earlier in the season, as long as they win. The important part for them is if they aren’t able to match the intensity, if they aren’t able to win those battles that’s where Portland can hurt them. Portland is a team that’s not scared to make the game ugly, they are not scared to make the game scrappy, so Atlanta United will need to be up for the fight and up for the challenge.
Tim Howard, current MLS player and also a B/R Football analyst
Portland will win if: Its blueprint in the playoffs is its resiliency. Nobody picked them to make the final. What they’ve done is they’ve been resilient, weathered the storms from the other teams. Valeri, for me, is a top three player in this league and has been for a number of years. They need Valeri and Blanco to play out of their skin and Diego Chara needs to do what he does best, and that’s to break up plays, be hard-nosed in the middle of the park and try as best as he can to stifle what is a lightning-fast, potent Atlanta United attack.
Atlanta United will win if: It thrives on its homefield advantage, on the 70,000 people that will be there wearing red and black. They very rarely deviate from their game plan and that is get on the ball from back to front. Brad Guzan gets on the ball, gets Michael Parkhurst involved. ... They build up the park. There’s no two ways about that. Once it turns over to their money makers, Almiron and Martinez, that’s when the show begins. That is their M.O. That’s what everyone is looking forward to them doing. That’s what Portland is expecting them to do. As long as they don’t disappoint and stick to that, I think without question they have a good opportunity to win the game.
Portland will lose if: The fact that Atlanta United is at home, if they succumb to the atmosphere, environment and pressure they will be under in the final, that could be a key factor. If they crumble under that pressure, they will without doubt lose. The attack of Atlanta is relentless. You have to weather that storm over and over and over again. If they can’t handle that pressure and the levee breaks they will be in trouble.
Atlanta United will lose if: One factor that is key to me, is like everybody else, they’ve already handed down the trophy. So, complacency sets in when you are that good, the team that is coming out of the West you are going to face in the final, no one predicted. It’s human nature to kick your feet up and go, ‘Hey we got this in the bag.’” The problem is Portland won’t have a lot of the ball, but when they do Valeri can hurt you and he can punish you. He’s done it time and time again, as well as Blanco. I think if they take these guys too lightly, they can get punished. That, to me, is their biggest Achilles’ heel, complacency in the final.
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