MLS Cup Final Tactical Preview Outline
As the excitement builds for the upcoming Atlanta United FC vs. Portland Timbers match, here are our thoughts on what might happen on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
This MLS season has already been filled with surprises — the odds were not in Portland’s favor at halftime in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship second leg but they beat the percentages and defeated Sporting Kansas City 3-2. Now they are in their second MLS Cup in club history.
Atlanta United may be the best surprise in the MLS.
Atlanta has become one of the top clubs in America — in only two seasons. The super successful, high-flying team has the grit needed to score and thrill fans — and has shattered attendance records for total home attendance. Nearly a million soccer fans attended the season’s 17 games. That’s a record 901,033 fans.
And, this MLS Cup is poised to break the existing attendance record set by the Galaxy when they beat New England in front of 61,316 in 2002, and that seems like a lifetime ago. And, of course, Atlanta United star Josef Martinez has earned the 2018 Major League Soccer MVP award.
Even Timbers head coach Gio Savarese recognizes the power of Atlanta. “Between the stadium, players, coaching staff, fans—I think they’re an example,” Savarese said. “For them to have been able to do that in only two years is a credit to the hard work done by everyone in that organization.”
What will happen this time?
Atlanta United vs Portland Timbers Expected Lineups
Portland Timbers: Atinella; Villafana, Ridgewell, Mabiala, Powell; Guzman, Chara, Blanco, Valeri, Polo; Ebobisse
Atlanta United: Guzan; Robinson, Parkhurst, Gonzalez-Pirez; Garza, Gressel, Remedi, Nagbe, Escobar; Almiron, Martinez
Key Matchup: Martinez vs Villafana. Villafana’s struggles to handle the Sporting Kansas City star Johnny Russell may be even more exploited during the cup final in Atlanta. The American full-back often times found himself isolated against Russell; and Russell nearly found paydirt several times throughout the matchup, particularly in the second leg. Giovanni Savarese has said that he wants Villafana to get further forward to help out their left flank in the attack: which could have ramifications on both sides of the ball.
Josef Martinez will look to run in behind and lay the ball off to an advancing Franco Escobar, who will likely feature at right wing-back for Atlanta. However, the 23-year-old Escobar has yet to record a single assist all season. This will mean that we may see Josef Martinez choose to use the runs of Escobar in order to cut inside to find space.
Key player: Diego Valeri has been on fire in this postseason. He has scored 4 goals in this postseason & has added another 3 assists. His success has largely come due to his versatility in different situations. The 2017 MLS MVP will look to find himself in dangerous positions in & around the Atlanta 18-yard box. A large component of the game will be to see how Atlanta deals with the threat of Valeri picking the ball up & having time to pick his passes to potentially unlock the Atlanta defense. With Sebastion Blanco also lining up on the other side of the Portland attack, Atlanta will likely look to over-crowd the midfield & not allow these two prolific attacking midfielders the opportunity to create chances.
Atlanta’s use of wing backs has allowed them to start the majority of their attacks on the wings this season. According to WhoScored.com, a combined total of 74% of their chances have come from the wings during the season & postseason. It will be a real test for Portland to see how they handle the overload in both midfield & the wings. It would be wise for them to make sure to always have an extra body from the forwards to track back & help out in defense.
As for Portland, they have chosen to allow their opponents to have the majority of possession and hit their opponents on a Route One counter-attack.
They will likely look to use the speed of Ebobisse to begin a counter-attack, with Valeri falling in behind to create their chances. Another option they have is to use the long-shooting prowess of Sebastian Blanco to draw defenders out of their position. We saw just how good of a shooter Blanco is when he drew Portland level during the Western Conference Championships against Sporting Kansas City.
Based on his ability to shoot the ball, Atlanta would be wise to close him down immediately when he has the ball in the final third. Giovanni Savarese will likely give Valeri & Blanco the license to free roam to do as they wish when Portland has possession of the ball; a tactic that has had huge dividends this season.
The last component I want to analyze is the crowd. It is no secret: it will essentially be a home game for Atlanta United. Portland will have to create chances early & often in order to keep the crowd on its heels. If Portland can hit Atlanta on a counter attack & score the first goal, we can expect them to try to continue to get men behind the ball and use Ebobisse as an outlet. Doing so will help to keep the crowd quiet. If the Atlanta strikeforce of Martinez & Almiron can get involved around the box often, the crowd will be on the edges of their seats all game. Expect Portland to put their center backs on these two maestros to keep them, and the crowd, quiet.
Turning the clock back: