At­lanta-Port­land fi­nal a per­fect fit for fi­nale

Houston Chronicle - - HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL | ETC. - By Joel Petterson

AT­LANTA — In the ado­les­cent years of Ma­jor League Soc­cer, its cham­pi­onship game did not al­ways feel like a spec­ta­cle. In those days, the MLS Cup was held at neu­tral sites be­fore most teams had fan bases will­ing to travel en masse, and the pock­ets of empty seats and the mo­saic of ran­dom jer­seys in the sta­di­ums didn’t ex­actly cre­ate a sense of grandeur.

It would be hard to imag­ine a big­ger con­trast, then, with what is now be­ing promised in Satur­day night’s 23rd MLS Cup, when the Port­land Tim­bers will visit At­lanta United with the league ti­tle at stake. MLS, which stopped us­ing neu­tral sites for its fi­nal af­ter the 2011 game, could hardly have drawn up a bet­ter set­ting: the league’s two top teams — and its past two most valu­able play­ers — squar­ing off in­side the yearold Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium, its stands packed with more than 70,000 fans wear­ing the col­ors of a brash, sec­ond-year team that has jolted the league.

“It’s go­ing to be in­cred­i­ble,” said Arthur Blank, who owns At­lanta United and its gleam­ing new arena. “For our fans. Re­ally, for soc­cer in North Amer­ica.”

Adding to the at­mos­phere will be the fact that about 2,000 Tim­bers sup­port­ers are ex­pected to be on hand as well, mak­ing them the largest trav­el­ing con­tin­gent for a fi­nal that many in the league can re­mem­ber. Many of the Port­land sup­port­ers will have trav­eled from the op­po­site cor­ner of the coun­try this week, ready to give fullthroated re­minders to their hosts that they have been singing chants and win­ning games — and tro­phies — since be­fore At­lanta United ex­isted.

For a league al­ways striv­ing to carve out a big­ger stake in the Amer­i­can sports land­scape, this mo­ment — two of MLS’ most pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful teams meet­ing on what is un­ques­tion­ably the league’s big­gest stage — is an ex­quis­ite bit of serendip­ity.

“It is not of­ten that a league can cel­e­brate a lead­ing goal scorer of all-time, an MVP, a record-set­ting fan base, and just clut­ter-break­ing ex­cite­ment with one team in one mar­ket,” MLS com­mis­sioner Don Gar­ber said.

At­lanta en­ters the fi­nal as a heavy fa­vorite. It fin­ished two points shy of the top record in the league, the prod­uct of a fluid and ag­gres­sively at­tack­ing style in­stilled by­coach Gerardo Martino. It fea­tures Josef Martinez, the league’s top player and the Venezue­lan striker who won MVP hon­ors this week af­ter smash­ing the league’s sin­gle-sea­son goals record with 31 this sea­son.

On the other side is a Port­land team that, while it may not be able to match At­lanta’s av­er­age at­ten­dance num­bers (fig­ures that, the league boasts of­ten, fall some­where be­tween the crowds at home games for Liver­pool and Manch­ester City) or roster spend­ing, has long been a dar­ling of MLS. The Tim­bers, the 2015 MLS cham­pi­ons, have sold out their sta­dium for ev­ery home game since join­ing the league in 2011.

And as it did in its 2015 run, Port­land has proved to be a tough op­po­nent on the road this post­sea­son. Led by the 2016 MVP Diego Va­leri, it has scored seven goals in three games away from Prov­i­dence Park in the post­sea­son. And while first-year Tim­bers coach Gio­vanni Savarese might not have the in­ter­na­tional pedi­gree of Martino, who pre­vi­ously coached Barcelona and Ar­gentina’s na­tional team, he is in his sixth fi­nal in seven years af­ter mak­ing five in his last job, with the New York Cos­mos of the North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League.

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