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Vibrant new boys versus hipster darlings: MLS decider a snapshot of league's progress

Later today, Atlanta United take on the Portland Timbers.
Dec 8th 2018, 8:06 AM 8,259 2

FOR ATLANTA UNITED, it’s the culmination of a season full of expectation. 

Last year – their inaugural MLS campaign – they reached the playoffs. They broke attendance records. It seemed difficult to top.

But they’ve managed it. 

In 2018, they were just pipped to the Supporters Shield (awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season). They crammed 72,243 people into the Mercedes Benz Stadium to make more league history. They had striker Josef Martinez rack up 31 goals (including three hat-tricks) while Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel contributed 14 assists each.

And, the biggest development this term has been their ability to ignore the hype. In the play-offs, they were cold-blooded and ruthless and breezed past New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semi-final and New York Red Bulls in the decider, relying heavily on their magnificent home form to see them through both ties.

With the exception of an inexplicable 4-1 reverse to Toronto FC in their final league game, they’ve also been consistently solid at the back.  From their last four fixtures – and the ones that matter most – they’ve conceded twice. So, as powerful and explosive as they are up top, they’re able to exert some balance too. 

Everything points to them finishing out the season on a high later tonight.

Tata Martino, the former Barcelona and Argentina national team coach, concludes his excellent two years in charge later this evening. The fixture against Portland Timbers is in Atlanta’s own back yard. They can count on that feverish support to carry them home.

And yet, the curious spectre of MLS casts a shadow. 

It’s an odd league, a fun place but where the general parity leads to some head scratching.

After 34 games of the regular season, Atlanta managed 69 points. They lost seven times. They scored 70 goals. It was good enough for second place in the East.

Meanwhile, Portland finished fifth in the Western Conference and ended up with 54 points. But, here we are. 

The Timbers had to play an extra play-off game (they slipped past FC Dallas) but one can argue that victory in a postseason situation can create momentum and good energy. It was hard not to buy into such a sentiment when they showed incredible grit and determination to compose themselves against Seattle in the conference semi-final. They conceded a 93rd-minute goal that forced extra-time but they dug deep, took a breath and ended up winning the resultant shootout.

In the Western showdown with Sporting Kansas City, they seemed to have squandered things (home advantage is crucial in MLS) when they were held to a scoreless draw in the first leg in Portland. But, again, their timing was impeccable and with their backs against the wall, they excelled. Sebastian Blanco struck one of the goals of the season while Diego Valeri put the game out of reach midway through the second half before applying the finishing touch to a remarkable counter-attack in the ninth minute of injury time. It was a stunning riposte.

And in amongst the Atlanta fanfare and the energy surrounding what they’ve done and what lies ahead for them is the fact that Portland have been here before. In a couple of ways. 

There was a time – not long ago – when they were the new kids with the feverish support and big plans. In 2015, they harnessed all of that and won MLS Cup in just their fifth year.

Giovanni Savarese Portland Timbers' boss Gio Savarese has hit the ground running in his first season as manager. Source: Al Sermeno

And even though Atlanta are starting from scratch, Portland have pressed the reset button too. With the excellent Caleb Porter’s departure as boss at the end of last season, the club were faced with a transition after a richly impressive few years. As a result, the work that Gio Savarese has done since arriving can’t be ignored. He’s hit the ground running and served up immediate results to a demanding fanbase.  

And that’s another plot point too. In many ways, this represents the perfect match-up for the league. Both organisations boast supporter culture that hasn’t just made friends domestically but internationally too. Atlanta’s ability to attract crowds has led to a litany of headlines while the Timber Army aren’t exactly shrinking violets. The atmosphere – such a hit and miss ingredient in MLS depending on location – will be intense and a visual spectacle is guaranteed, at least in the stands.

Still, it’s not just about the aesthetic. MLS has grown beyond that. And this final represents the progress the league has made.

In the last five finals, there have been five different champions. If Atlanta are successful, it will be six in six. Nobody can ever accuse MLS of being predictable.

The other win for the league’s top brass is the strength of the recent expansion teams and how the cities have all bought into football in their local community. The most recent additions to MLS – Orlando (though 2018 was difficult), New York City, Minnesota, Atlanta and Los Angeles – have all been, at best, strong performers and, at worst, steady.

And that all bodes well for Cincinnati (2019), Nashville (2020) and David Beckham’s Miami franchise (2020). 

MLS 2018: Atlanta United FC vs Houston Dynamo MAR 03 Tata Martino is in charge of Atlanta United and is hoping to finish his tenure with a flourish. Source: Cal Sport Media

Ultimately – outside of the superficial – there’s a lot to be said for this year’s final two. There’s a contrast but also a similarity. It goes beyond the cliches of sparky new boys versus hipster darlings. There’s more depth, more nuance.

And that speaks volumes about where MLS is in 2018.             

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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