In 2015, the Portland Timbers entered MLS Cup on even ground, with both them and the host team, Columbus Crew SC, having had to fight their conference brackets’ long odds. The club’s first star on the men’s side didn’t come from a David-and-Goliath battle. Two Davids took the field in Ohio.
Read any preview, watch any panel, listen to the Timbers’ player interviews, and you’ll know: 2018 is different. As we mentioned before, Atlanta United FC have earned the right to be considered favorites. That so few are picking Portland reflects the reality of this MLS Cup’s world.
For anybody who has followed the Timbers, though, it’s not difficult to imagine an upset coming off. How the teams played out their 1-1, June 24 draw in Atlanta informs that, as does the defending Portland is capable of when both Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell are in the lineup. Having seen them so much, perhaps we grow used to singing the praises of players like Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Diego Chara, but listen to coaching staffs around the league, and you’re reminded that any team with those talents has a shot.
That doesn’t even account for David Guzmán and Andy Polo, two players who spent part of their summers at the World Cup in Russia. And what of Jeff Attinella and Zarek Valentin, enjoying breakout seasons, U.S. international Jorge Villafaña, or a young striker in Jeremy Ebobisse who, when we look back on this fall, may be said to have enjoyed his first big breakout.
The Timbers don’t lack for talent – Atlanta is stacked, as well – but as this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report ahead of Saturday's MLS Cup (5pm PT, FOX) notes, there are a few key players who, should they perform well, could carry Portland to another title.
1. Embracing the moment
So much focus is going to be on the setting, and not without reason. With over 70,000 fans expected to fill out Mercedes-Benz Stadium, MLS is set to enjoy their largest Cup crowd in final history. Saturday won’t just be a celebration for United supporters. It will be a chance for an entire league to celebrate how far it has come.
As it concerns the game, that atmosphere has to lead to questions about how Portland will manage the moment. Will the scenes from the field, the din from the crowd, or the sways in audio that will mark one moment from another impact the Timbers’ performance? After all, they can’t be used to this kind of crowd.
Of course, Atlanta United isn’t used to it, either. Certainly, they’re going to be more familiar with the backdrops, the field, the lighting, spaces and feel, but if Saturday’s atmosphere lives up to the hype, it will be unfamiliar to the Five Stripes, too. It won’t be surprising if a couple of Atlanta players stop and, in the moment, think to themselves, “Oh my God. This is an MLS Cup final.”
Portland’s players will have more adjustments to make, though. It’s not a matter of succumbing to them as much as it is the time it will take to adapt. If it takes close to 40 minutes, like it did in Kansas City, the Timbers may be on the brink before they wake up. But, if it’s more like games in Seattle or the previous trip to Atlanta this season, Portland’s likely to notice the event, remind themselves how they got this far, and get on with plying their soccer.
2. The matchup of all matchups
Far more interesting than the crowd or how Portland will adjust is the inevitable battle between two Timbers icons: one still wearing green; the other having moved on.
It’s difficult to conceive of a scenario where Saturday’s game plays out and the matchup between Chara and Darlington Nagbe isn’t of huge importance. Nagbe, as he was so often in Portland, represents a potential choke point in Atlanta’s transition. If Chara can do as he does to so many other midfielders and disrupt his game, Portland will have won one of the game’s key battles. The home side’s ability to break on the counter too often depends on one or two Nagbe moments.
Going the other direction, too, Nagbe may be tasked with making sure Chara’s influence doesn’t grow, because while it’s near impossible to prevent the Timbers linchpin from being a decisive force when Portland’s without the ball, Chara’s ability to contribute in attack often pushes his team over the top. When he’s getting out on the break, adding another person to the attack, or merely getting higher and swaying possession higher up the field, Portland has far more potential. Nagbe, along with Julian Gressel, will be the players who’ll have to keep an eye on Chara.
Still, for long time Timbers fans, those details will feel too granular – like they’re overlooking the more instinctive, more visceral response. This is Darlington Nagbe against Diego Chara, a battle few could have foreseen as possible, a year ago, but a battle that could decide an MLS Cup. That it involves, perhaps, two of the best midfielders in Timbers history is detail enough.
3. Is the magic still real?
On a team level, the Timbers have proved the magic, as the word was used three years ago, is still real. The team wouldn’t be in Atlanta if wasn’t. But as it concerns the matchups on the field, there are two magicians who have been more important than most.
Think back to the beginning of the playoffs, with the Timbers in Dallas. On short rest, having been pushed to the back foot for the game’s first 30 minutes, Portland saw their maestro step up. The remarkable thing about Valeri’s 28-yard goal in Frisco wasn’t so much that he scored it; it was that we knew he’d convert.
Think then to Seattle, when Blanco scorched a ball off of CenturyLink’s turf to, quickly answer Raúl Ruidíaz’s goal, cancelling out the advantage of Seattle’s pocketed away goal. It was from that game that #CelebrateThanks was born, with Portland’s second magician conjuring his first defining moment.
And finally, think to Kansas City: Blanco, with perhaps the best goal in Timbers history (apologies, Darlington), putting Portland back in control; Valeri, nine minutes later, heading the Timbers in front; then the captain, again, scoring nine minutes into added time to annihilate the weight on Portland’s shoulders.
Some teams are lucky to have one magician. For so long, most MLS teams had none. Portland has two, and if there’s one thing you can point to while defending the Timbers as your MLS Cup pick, it’s the fact the visitors will have Blanco and Valeri on the field.