There's no one way to reach MLS Cup. Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers have made that abundantly clear. Atlanta has made that clear on its own, even.
The respective Eastern and Western Conference champions will battle for 2018 MLS supremacy at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 8, in front of what should be a crowd of over 70,000 in the soccer-mad city.
There shouldn't be many surprises when the two sides do battle. Atlanta, especially considering it's playing at home, will look to be on the front foot and should win the possession battle. Portland, which has excelled as a defend-and-counter side, will likely operate the same way, looking to catch Atlanta with numbers forward and pick apart the spaces left in behind with its playmakers.
If Tata Martino's attack can break down Giovanni Savarese's rearguard early and often, it'll be a long day for the Timbers and a coronation for the hosts in their second season. If Portland can resist and maintain its efficiency when picking its spots, it could wind up lifting MLS Cup on hostile ground for the second time in four years.
Here's a closer look at the matchup and some of its most glaring elements:
Their regular-season meeting
The teams met once, back in June, and played to a 1-1 draw in Atlanta. Giovanni Savarese went with five defenders (a 3-5-2 with two fullbacks on the wings) to try and combat Atlanta's attack, and it worked to a degree. For all of the attacking talent on the field, Josef Martinez was off his mark (in fact, it was the only game between May 30 and Aug. 24 that he didn't score–a remarkable span of 14 matches), and it was Portland center back Larrys Mabiala and second-year Atlanta midfield star Julian Gressel who scored.
How much can we really take from that match, though? Neither was in the vein of form it is now, and a number of starters from that day are unlikely to feature from the beginning next weekend (Atlanta's big-money signing Ezequiel Barco and Portland forward Samuel Armenteros among them). The teams have both grown and evolved, and Atlanta, more specifically, has shown its ability to be patient and conservative in addition to its more explosive and aggressive self. There will be some data points for both managers to take, but June was an awfully long time ago. If nothing else, it's a reference point for Portland that it can get a result in Atlanta.
Is Portland really that much of an underdog?
NO! This is a team not that far removed from winning MLS Cup, with six starters and a reserve from the 2015 final still on the roster. In Diego Valeri, it features the 2015 MLS Cup MVP and 2017 league MVP. In Valeri, Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco, it features arguably the league's top midfield trio.
It's a five-seed in the MLS playoffs. So? When has MLS playoff seeding really determined the full extent of a team's quality? Atlanta had a far superior regular season (69 points to Portland's 54; 21 wins to Portland's 15), but it never enjoyed an unbeaten streak like the 15-match one Portland embarked on from April 14 to Aug. 4. Atlanta's longest winning streak this season was four games. Portland's was six. That doesn't make Portland the overwhelming favorite, either, but it paints a picture of two teams that probably aren't as far apart as some may make it out to seem.
Atlanta will undoubtedly have home-field advantage, but Portland has earned the results it has needed in Dallas, Seattle and Kansas City already this postseason. A trip to Atlanta won't strike fear.
The Nagbe Bowl
Portland's trade of Darlington Nagbe to Atlanta last winter was one of the eye-opening moves of the offseason. It showed Atlanta's intent to stockpile its midfield with difference-makers (though Nagbe somehow didn't score once all season and had just three assists in that high-octane attack) and Portland's willingness to part ways with a key element as it altered its look under Savarese.
You don't often get to see the head-to-head results of a trade play out on a title stage, but here we'll get that opportunity.
South American flair
There will surely be plenty more written about this topic in the week to come, but this final has a massive South American influence, and that should come as no surprise. The league has trended toward the South American star, and these teams are exhibits A and B. Portland has its nucleus of Valeri, Blanco (Argentina) and Chara (Colombia) in addition to key contributions from Lucas Melano (Argentina), Dairon Asprilla (Colombia) and Andy Polo (Peru). Atlanta counters with regulars Miguel Almiron (Paraguay), Martinez (Venezuela), Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar, Tito Villalba and Eric Remedi (Argentina) in addition to the underperforming but incredibly gifted Barco (also Argentina).
The managers hail from Argentina (Martino) and Venezuela (Savarese).
The league may play its matches in the USA and Canada, but the neighbors to the south will determine its champion.
Fifth time's the charm?
Atlanta's attacking talents earn the headlines, but 34-year-old defender Michael Parkhurst has been a valuable part of the club's success. This will mark his fifth trip to MLS Cup (2005-2007 with New England, 2015 with Columbus), and he's come up short each time.
The apparent ankle injury he suffered in stoppage time of the Eastern Conference final's second leg didn't stop him from receiving and lifting the trophy Thursday night, but there will be plenty of focus on the ailment as matchday approaches.