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MLS Cup position-by-position breakdown: Portland may surprise Atlanta

ATLANTA — The 2018 MLS Cup features numerous intriguing position battles, and after looking at each spot on the field, the match could be closer than some expect. 

Atlanta United is the favored team playing at home in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the Portland Timbers boast experience after winning the MLS Cup in 2015 in Columbus.

Below is a position-by-position breakdown of how the teams match up:

GOALKEEPER 

Brad Guzan vs. Jeff Attinella 

Atlanta’s Brad Guzan is one of the most experienced players set to step on the field on Saturday night, while Portland’s Jeff Attinella’s been a solid player in goal for Portland after spending the majority of his career as a MLS backup. 

Attinella’s made 17 saves during the postseason, but he’s also conceded seven goals during five games, while Guzan has nine saves to his name while conceding twice during four playoff contests. 

If you’re breaking this head-to-head comparison down by who you’d trust the most to make a big save in MLS Cup, most people would give the edge to Guzan.

Attinella is a solid keeper in his own right, but Guzan carries the most big-game experience and should be up for the challenge.

ADVANTAGE: Atlanta 

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan will lead his team in the MLS Cup. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports`

FULL BACK

Greg Garza and Franco Escobar vs. Jorge Villafana and Zarek Valentin

Both teams feature a U.S. men’s national team player on the defensive flanks combined with a reliable option who has played well throughout the postseason. 

Atlanta’s Greg Garza returned from injury just in time for the run to MLS Cup, and he’s been rounding into form, while Franco Escobar stole the spotlight with a Man of the Match performance in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Red Bulls. 

The Five Stripes fullbacks will be asked to do more work going forward, as they overlap on the wings in the attempt to overload Portland’s defenders. 

Portland’s Jorge Villafana carries plenty of recent title-winning experience, and he’ll pick and choose his time to go forward, if he does at all, as he and Zarek Valentin are tasked with subduing Atlanta’s pacy wingers. 

The sets of full backs have different tasks in front of them on Saturday, but if they do them properly, their team will be at an advantage.

ADVANTAGE: Atlanta

Atlanta United defender Greg Garza (4) is expected to play a key role during the MLS Cup. Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

CENTER BACK

Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez vs. Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala

Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez turned in one of the best defensive performances of the season in Atlanta’s second leg of the Eastern Conference final. 

Both centerbacks are playing at a best XI level in the playoffs, and they should be able to limit the opportunities of Jeremy Ebobisse in the final third in MLS Cup. 

Portland’s duo of Ridgewell and Mabiala have some questions to answer, as Mabiala is working his way back from an ankle injury. 

Even if a healthy Bill Tuiloma starts in place of Mabiala, Atlanta’s center backs are still in better form, and therefore easily get the nod here. 

ADVANTAGE: Atlanta 

Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst has contributed to the Five Stripes’ strong postseason run. (Credit: Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports)

CENTRAL MIDFIELD

Diego Chara and David Guzman vs. Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Remedi 

One of the best defensive midfielders in MLS takes on his toughest challenge yet, as Portland’s Chara faces off against former teammate Darlington Nagbe and the dynamic Miguel Almiron. 

Containing those two attackers is a hard task for anyone, but if there’s a player in MLS capable of succeeding in that job, it’s Chara. 

When Chara is pulled out of the middle of the park, Guzman is more than capable of stepping up and making a key tackle before the Five Stripes advance into the penalty area. 

On the other end of the field, Larentowicz brings the experience of playing four MLS Cups and winning one title in Colorado in 2010. 

Larentowicz may not have the pace to keep up with Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, but he’ll be in the right position to stop advances made by the Timbers. 

When the experienced midfielder isn’t able to keep up with Portland’s attackers, Remedi takes over and provides Tata Martino’s side with cover in front of the back four that Valeri and Co. must find a way to break down. 

Even though Atlanta’s two central midfielders are good in their own right, Chara is the best at his position in the league for a reason. 

ADVANTAGE: Portland 

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara, left, is one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS. (Credit: Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)

WINGERS

Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe vs. Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo 

No matter which formation Atlanta trots out on Saturday, Nagbe and Gressel will drift out wide in an attempt to send crosses into the box to elite goal scorer Josef Martinez. 

Gressel’s biggest strength is his crossing ability and he’ll test the Portland full backs with every chance he receives to create chances off the flanks. 

Nagbe might be at a bit of a disadvantage since the Timbers have plenty of familiarity with his game, but he’s still going to play an important role in providing balance to the Five Stripes, either in the middle of the park, or in transition when he moves out to the flank.

As we saw in the second leg of the Western Conference final, Blanco can strike in an instant, which is what makes him so dangerous. 

Polo is one of the unheralded players on either roster, and he’s going to a valuable piece for the Timbers, in their attacking buildup that will attempt to break down the Five Stripes’ defensive setup. 

Although Gressel and Nagbe are solid players, Blanco and Polo carry more importance in the Portland attack, and will make a bigger impact.

ADVANTAGE: Portland

Portland Timbers midfielder Sebastian Blanco, right, is expected to play a key role for his team during the MLS Cup. (Credit: Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)

ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS

Miguel Almiron vs. Diego Valeri 

This is one of the best positional battles we’ll see in the history of MLS Cup. Almiron and Valeri are capable of flipping the game on its head in a heartbeat. 

Almiron recorded 12 goals and 14 assists for the Five Stripes in the regular season, while Valeri added 10 goals and 12 assists for Portland, but he turned it up a notch in the postseason with four goals and two assists.

Almiron is more than capable of outperforming Valeri, but the Argentinian in green and gold has the track record in MLS and the postseason that hands him the slightest of advantages. 

However, don’t be surprised if both players make a significant impact on the field over 90 minutes.

ADVANTAGE: Portland

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8) is expected to be a major factor during the MLS Cup. (Credit: Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)

FORWARD

Josef Martinez vs. Jeremy Ebobisse

With all due respect to Ebobisse, Atlanta’s Martinez is the runaway winner of this positional matchup. He won the Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player for the 2018 season. 

The Venezuelan striker added three postseason goals to his regular-season haul of 31 tallies, and all he needs is one chance to make a difference in the contest. 

Ebobisse has three goals and three assists in 2018, and he’s not the primary scorer in the Portland attack, which is a role that suits Valeri and Blanco before him. 

The No. 4 pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft could be the X-factor for the Timbers, but he doesn’t come close to matching up with Martinez.

ADVANTAGE: Atlanta 

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez is a prolific goal scorer who gives his team an edge entering the MLS Cup. (Credit: Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports)

SCORE PROJECTION: Portland 2-1

Atlanta is carrying a world of pressure, and it’ll feel it throughout the first half, as the Timbers frustrate Almiron, Martinez and Co. 

After going into the half scoreless, the Timbers will strike first, but it’ll be quickly followed by an Atlanta equalizer. 

In the closing stretches of the contest, Valeri breaks free and hands the Timbers their second MLS Cup, while the Five Stripes are left heartbroken.

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