It all comes down to this. After 38 matches, there are only two teams left in the race for MLS Cup. The Portland Timbers came into the postseason as the fifth seed but have surged into the knockout rounds, beating out top-seeded Sporting Kansas City in a 3-2 road win last week. But as the side with more regular-season points, Atlanta United earn the right to host the event for the first time after series wins over both clubs from New York. The Five Stripes could add their first MLS Cup to their trophy cabinet this weekend against the best of the west.
It all starts at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday December 8th at 8:00 p.m. EST. You can get one of the limited remaining tickets here, or tune in on FOX. Click here for all the ways to follow the match.
#2 - Atlanta United
Atlanta United tied the record for most points ever in an MLS regular season, only to be topped on the final day by the New York Red Bulls. A lesser team may have crumbled under the weight of that disappointment, but the Five Stripes bounced back with three straight wins, powering to a 3-0 lead over the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals before defending that lead resolutely in New York.
The Five Stripes are still their high-flying attacking selves, scoring a combined six goals in their two postseason matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium so far this year. But the difference-maker in the postseason so far has been the play of their defense, who have conceded just two goals in four matches in knock-out play. Michael Parkhurst’s 16 clearances in New York were the second-highest of any player in any match this season, while his center back partner Leandro González Pirez was named Man of the Match after a commanding performance against the Red Bulls last time out. The return of Greg Garza adds another option to the left while Franco Escobar has had game-changing perfrmances in the postseason on the right.
But there’s a reason Atlanta United was the top-scoring team in MLS this year; their high-speed counter-attack has been a handful for every team that’s come to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Newly-crowned MLS MVP Josef Martinez scored in each round of the postseason after his historic year, while Miguel Almirón has shown every bit of why he was named in the MLS Best XI. Behind them sit unsung heroes that are no less crucial to the success of the team –– Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi –– who combine clean touches and tidy possession play with the effort and defensive workrate required in the postseason. Put together, it’s been too much to handle in the postseason for two of the strongest teams in MLS, but Atlanta United face a unique challenge this weekend against the champions of the Western Conference.
#5 – Portland Timbers
After a slow start, the Timbers surged through the second half of the season to jolt up the table and finish in fifth place in the Western Conference. They beat FC Dallas in Texas in their play-in game before knocking out their Northwest rival Seattle Sounders on penalty kicks in the following round. But after a 0-0 draw in Portland, the Timbers are coming off their best win of the postseason by beating top-ranked Sporting Kansas City in a wild 3-2 win on the road once again.
The Timbers are at the best in the middle of the park, where last year’s MLS MVP Diego Valeri is joined by two of the best at their position. Diego Chara is one of the top defensive midfielders in the league, while Sebastian Blanco’s speed, dribbling and finishing abilities have added a new scoring threat in their midfield. They’ll be looking to find the #4 pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Jeremy Ebobisse, who has taken hold of the starting load. But it all starts with Valeri, who has 4 goals and 2 assists in the postseason already –– and stopping him will be a big task for the Five Stripes on Saturday.
In the back it’s an experienced Premier League veteran holding down the line in Liam Ridgewell, and Timbers coach Gio Savarese acknowledged this week that his regular season partner, Larrys Mabiala, is expected to be fit after suffering an ankle injury in last week’s Eastern Conference Final. Zarek Valentin and U.S. international Jorge Villafaña will try to lock down the flanks from the full back positions, and Jeff Attinella is the last line of defense as goalkeeper, coming off a solid season as their #1. Their three road matches so far this postseason have been high-scoring affairs, so Atlanta United will be hoping to exploit a possible vulnerability with their top-ranked attack.
Both prior meetings between these teams ended in a draw, so it’ll be a tense finale to the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Limited tickets are still available here, or click here for more info on how to tune in.