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Portland Timbers relishing the role of MLS Cup underdog

ATLANTA — Portland Timbers fullback Zarek Valentin stopped in the middle of interviews Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to act as the liaison between himself and teammate Larrys Mabiala, setting up an interview in French. 

If Valentin and his teammates were feeling the pressure of MLS Cup, that moment and a few others throughout training didn’t make it seem like the underdog Timbers felt much stress over Saturday’s match. The Timbers are relishing the underdog role and feel capable of challenging the high-powered Five Stripes for 90 minutes or more. 

“Obviously we’re OK being underdogs, and that doesn’t matter to us,” Valentin said. “We believe in ourselves and we believe that whatever we do we can make it difficult for teams to play against and I think we’ve shown that. It’s just a matter of us taking care of business. We’re super excited and I can’t wait to get out there and put out good work.” 

When the Timbers won the Western Conference final at Children’s Mercy Park, Valentin, who is a native of the Philadelphia area, broke out the dog mask worn by the Philadelphia Eagles during their Super Bowl run. 

Valentin confirmed the mask he wore in Kansas City is in Atlanta in case the Timbers win, but he let the Timbers equipment staff take care of transporting it because of superstition. 

As for the rest of the Timbers players, they aren’t going to back down from the challenge, even if everyone is counting them out. 

“People can say whatever they want,” Timbers centerback Mabiala said. “If they want to put us as underdogs, it’s fine because we’ve done against what everyone is thinking from the beginning. We already have a bunch of players who won MLS Cup so they know how to deal with the pressure, the atmosphere and everything that goes with the final. We are talking a lot to them and they are very confident and they are relaying the confidence to the other players.” 

Not only do the Timbers have experience from winning on the road in the postseason, they’ve done it as underdogs — and they’ve won MLS Cup before in the same role in Columbus in 2015. 

“Yeah, why not? You like to see us as the underdogs,” Timbers centerback Liam Ridgewell said. “Every interview I’ve done, everyone has seen us as the underdogs. Everyone else has brandished us as that. We see ourselves that we can win the game, and that’s the main thing.

“We won it (in 2015) and we were brandished as underdogs that day as well. It’s one we look forward to and one we can embrace.” 

With their role determined entering MLS Cup, the Timbers are even having a little fun with where they stand, and the venue they’ll be playing in Saturday.

“I’ve been playing in big stadiums (my whole career),” Mabiala said. “When I used to go to play with my national team in Congo, we used to play in front of 90.000 people so from my perspective, it’s nothing that impressive.” 

Said Valentin:“It’s kind of cool to be in here when there’s no one in here, but I’m more of an Audi guy personally.”

 

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