ATLANTA — Atlanta United defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 on Saturday night to win its first MLS Cup. Josef Martinez was the game’s MVP with a goal and an assist, while Franco Escobar made the game safe with a second-half tally.
Here are three thoughts on Atlanta’s victory:
1. Atlanta grinds down Timbers to win MLS Cup
Finals are often cagey affairs. The more time passes and the tension rises, the more risk-averse teams tend to get. But Atlanta took a patient approach against Portland and slowly wore down the Timbers.
Atlanta had the majority of possession in the first half, but that had little initial effect on Portland, whose prowess on the counter makes it plenty comfortable in such situations. But starting in about the 23rd minute, Atlanta began to crank up the pressure, winning set pieces and generally making Portland chase.
The first big chance fell to Miguel Almiron in the 28th minute, but his volley from Greg Garza’s cross was well saved by a diving Jeff Attinella. Atlanta continued to probe and press, and broke out in the 39th minute.
Portland attempted to play out of the back into the feet of Jeremy Ebobisse, but a heavy touch combined with a well-timed tackle from Michael Parkhurst saw the ball fall to Martinez, who rounded Attinella to score into an empty net. There were some claims that Martinez was offside, but replays showed that Larrys Mabiala kept the Atlanta forward onside.
Portland nearly hit straight back with Sebastian Blanco finding Ebobisse in the box, but his header was parried away by Brad Guzan in the Atlanta goal.
The Timbers attempted to climb back into the match at the start of the second half, but Atlanta doubled its lead in the 54th minute. Almiron’s free kick into the box was flicked on by Martinez and Escobar delivered a first-time finish at the far post.
Atlanta was in control thereafter. With the chants of “United! United!” ringing around Mercedes-Benz Stadium from the MLS Cup-record crowd of 73,019, the home side seemed the more likely to score, even as Portland threw on the likes of Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla.
Portland did manage to carve out a few half chances. Diego Valeri had one from a tight angle that went over the bar in the 73rd minute and substitute Alvas Powell was put clean through with eight minutes of normal time to play, but scuffed his shot wide.
As the final whistle sounded, Atlanta’s players engaged in a massive group hug, while the fans of this championship-starved city — it was Atlanta’s first title since the Braves won the World Series in 1995 — let loose with a roar that filled the venue.
It’s staggering to think that Atlanta United has achieved so much in such a short amount of time, but there can be no denying the acumen of its front office, the quality of the players and the intelligence and judgment of its manager. The Five Stripes are deserving winners indeed.
2. Martinez, Parkhurst send Martino out a winner
The looming exit of Tata Martino to the Mexico national team cast something of a shadow on Atlanta’s preparations this week. So did the likely departure of Almiron. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez admitted on Thursday that he would miss his mentor of the past two years. But Atlanta also kept to its task this week, and its two most consistent players helped orchestrate a league championship for Martino.
Martinez’s contribution has been obvious for all to see in 2018, and he reprised those performances when it mattered most. He has scored goals in all manner of ways this season, using his speed in one moment, sacrificing his body in another. In this instance, his uncanny ability to sniff out an opportunity when there didn’t appear to be one proved to be the difference.
Of course, it was Parkhurst’s tackle that set the stage for Martinez’s tally. In many ways the play signaled a return to the high pressing that has been part of Atlanta’s DNA for the majority of the season. A late-season swoon saw Martino revert to a more pragmatic approach, with less ball possession. But on this night Martino went back to his roots and it paid off.
No one will be more grateful for the victory than Parkhurst. The former U.S. international has endured an inordinate amount of MLS Cup final heartbreak. He lost three consecutive MLS Cup finals with the New England Revolution in the 2000s, and then was on the losing end of a fourth in 2015 when the Columbus Crew fell to the Timbers. Now Parkhurst can finally celebrate a championship, and the fact that he hoisted the cup as the team’s captain made it doubly sweet. It was a just reward for one of the league’s stalwarts.
If Parkhurst deserved a title, so too in many ways did Martino, who prior to joining Atlanta had some agonizing near misses with Argentina, including two penalty shootout defeats in consecutive Copa Americas. Saturday’s win might not quite make up for that, but it will feel darn good to the Five Stripes’ manager.
Can Atlanta keep its momentum going into the years ahead? Much will depend on the new coach to keep the pipeline of quality players into the team flowing. For now, the Five Stripes can take immense satisfaction from their first MLS Cup title.
3. Magic runs out for Portland
The Timbers’ run to the final was made even more impressive by their road form during the postseason, as they disposed of FC Dallas, bitter rivals the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. Portland’s attacking duo of Blanco and Valeri proved particularly potent, and manager Giovanni Savarese seemed to push all the right buttons.
But the Timbers’ reliance on the counterattacking strategy always has its limits. All it really takes is one mistake or a special play to render that strategy useless. Had Portland managed to get to halftime on level terms, matters — in particular the psychological aspect of the match — might have been different. Instead, the Timbers’ energy seemed to be just at a bit of a low ebb, and the combination of Ebobisse’s wayward touch, Parkhurst’s tackle and Martinez’s finish put Atlanta in front for good. All of that was too much to overcome.
Savarese has done plenty right in his first season as manager. The Timbers don’t seem that far away from taking up semi-permanent residence among the league’s elite. But on this night, they were simply beaten by a deeper, more talented team.