ATLANTA — If you ask Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez how Saturday’s Major League Soccer Cup Final will go, he’ll tell you his team’s opponent, the Portland Timbers, will likely sit back and welcome Atlanta United’s attack.
The Argentine centerback doesn’t believe the Timbers will bunker down and just clear everything. That’s no way to win in a final. That’s what teams do when they’re up big — like Atlanta United did in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals at Red Bull Arena. No, Gonzalez-Pirez thinks the Timbers will absorb Atlanta’s attack and then try to jump the defense on the counter.
“I think they will be sitting back and wait for us to attack every time,” Gonzalez-Pirez said earlier this week at the club’s training grounds. “They will try to make a counterattack. I think this will be the game, but I don’t know if this will happen.”
Toward the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, Giovanni Savarese’s side has mostly employed a 4-2-3-1 formation and has allowed its opponent to keep the ball and attack. The Timbers then try to win the ball back and spring forward on a counter.
“They are really good players,” Gonzalez-Pirez said of Portland’s attack. “Top players in the league. We have to pay a lot of attention to them, because they are so dangerous.”
But so far through the playoffs, Atlanta United’s backline has proven it can handle pressure and counters. In four games against the Red Bulls and NYCFC, Atlanta outscored them 7-2. And much of the time, at least one member of Atlanta’s backline was getting involved in the attack. Gonzalez-Pirez expects that to continue, especially if Portland opts to let Atlanta come to them.
“We always try to get involved, all of us in the back,” Gonzalez-Pirez said. “Maybe sometimes its [Michael Parkhurst] or Jeff [Larentowicz] or me, trying to attack every time. Maybe in this game, if [Portland] is sitting back like we think, it’s possible that we will have to participate more.”
Between Parkhurst, Larentowicz and Gonzalez-Pirez, they’ve totaled two goals and seven assists throughout the regular season and playoffs. If one of them can provide a spark to the attack Saturday evening at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in addition to their stout defense, it could give the Five Stripes an unexpected boost.
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) December 7, 2018
Darlington Nagbe on Diego Valeri: “He’s an excellent player. He’s got technique, he can score, he can play the final ball, he does a little bit of everything for them. He’s a great leader. I’m not looking forward to playing against him, but I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Greg Garza on Gerardo “Tata” Martino: “I think he’s a wonderful coach on the field, just the way he has us in tune every single day in training. I think the things that probably stuck out the most is just how humble and honest with us he is off the field. He’s a guy that you can talk about the game or anything with in life and he’ll give you a straight answer. He’ll tell you what he’s feeling or what he thinks about you on the dot. There’s nothing that he hides. He’s the type of person that can sit in the middle seat on travel days and he doesn’t complain about it. He doesn’t want to make himself feel a bit more special than any of us.”
Michael Parkhurst on his ankle: “I haven’t done much the past seven days. It’s been a lot of elevation and ice and a lot of taking care of it. I’ve been off my feet a lot and fortunately for me, we had nine days between games and that really helps. If it was a shorter turnaround it might have been really difficult. But it’s MLS Cup. A bum ankle isn’t going to hold me back. I’m not concerned about it. It’s been a long season and I feel good.”
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) December 7, 2018
- Atlanta United has three players on its roster who have played in an MLS Cup in Parkhurst, Larentowicz and Nagbe. Portland features nine players who have MLS Cup experience.
- Portland used 15 different starters over their five postseason matches. Atlanta used 12 starters over its four matches, with Miles Robinson starting the home leg against NYCFC while Larentowicz was injured.
- This is the third time in league history MLS Cup and the MLS All-Star Game have been played in the same stadium in the same year. In 2003, the MLS All-Stars defeated CD Guadalajara, before the San Jose Earthquakes won MLS Cup, both at the Home Depot Center (now the StubHub Center) in Carson, Calif. In 2013, the MLS All-Stars took on AS Roma, before Sporting Kansas City defeated Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup at Sporting Park (now Children’s Mercy Park) in Kansas City.
- This will be the first time in league history that the same venue will host the MLS Cup and the NFL’s Super Bowl in the same sporting season.
- If Portland wins, Savarese would become the eighth former MLS player to also win an MLS Cup as coach. He would be the fifth MLS coach to win the cup in his first season coaching a team.
- Alan Kelly will be the MLS Cup referee for the second time, having also presided over MLS Cup 2016 between Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC. Kelly was named 2018 MLS Referee of the Year and called 22.5 fouls per-match and issued three yellow cards per-match. He has sent two players off and whistled for 10 penalty kicks in the 22 matches he worked this season.
- The assistant referees are Ian Anderson and Eric Weisbrod. The video assistant referee for MLS Cup is Chris Penso.
- If Josef Martinez tallies at least one goal or assist, he will tie Sebastion Giovinco’s 2015 record of most combined goals and assists (38) in a single season.