Atlanta-Portland final a perfect fit for finale
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.