Many people in Portland today will be packing a suitcase. While filling the case with all kinds of green and gold items, the most notable feature will be the inerasable smile on their faces as they prepare for a 5,000-mile round trip to Atlanta and back in just a few days.
Nobody else in America expected them to make this trip at this time of the year. But they have been here before. Everyone else said the same thing in 2015, that they wouldn’t be able to make the cross country journey at this time of the year, but these Portlanders just wouldn’t listen. They simply turned up the music in their headphones to drown out the noise, as they hummed the words “just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world…”
Three years ago, the trip was to Columbus, Ohio, as Portland fans followed their beloved Timbers players to the MLS Cup. Against all odds, they lifted the trophy.
It was an unimaginable run then of nine games unbeaten. Following each of these results, a passer-by outside of the Timbers’ locker room would hear a passionate and impressively in-tune Scotsman, the club’s assistant coach Sean McAuley, leading the way in a rendition of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’.
’The magic is real’ were the words used to describe the feeling back then. That feeling has returned. There’s a new coaching staff, a few new playing faces, but the core of the team that helped place the first ever star above the Timbers’ crest remains.
To now claim a second star, Timbers must overcome arguably one of the best and most exciting teams in MLS history, Atlanta United.
What to expect?
The biggest MLS Cup final in the league’s 23-year history. Hosts Atlanta will welcome a capacity crowd to the state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz stadium, with 73,208 fans in attendance.
Not only will the match feature two of the most exciting teams that play a counter-attacking style of play but the build-up and parties will be such that fans from Portland are scrambling to travel some 2,500 miles to get there.
To be fair, the famous ‘Timbers Army’ would travel halfway around the world to watch their team play in a back garden.
Who are Atlanta United?
An expansion team in only their second season in MLS, this isn’t your typical new club needing time to build.
Backed by the billionaire Arthur Blank, also owner of NFL side Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United have immediately raised the MLS bar on standards for facilities, fans and first-team players. But, most importantly, they got the front office and coaching staff right.
The appointment of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, former boss of Barcelona and the Argentina national team, as their manager in 2016 raised many eyebrows in regards to the standard of staff this league could now attract.
This will be ‘Tata’s’ final match with the club – with reports claiming he has agreed a four-year deal to become the Mexico national team’s head coach. But for one more match, Atlanta fans can enjoy what has, in a short time, become one of the most exciting MLS teams and deadly youthful attacks the league has ever seen.
What about Portland Timbers?
The exact same praise can be applied to the Timbers. Just replace ‘youthful’ with ‘experienced’. Although their ‘main men’ are the other side of 30, they are looking as youthful as ever while playing some of the best soccer of their careers.
Big credit must go to Giovanni Savarese – in his debut year in MLS – and his staff for how quickly they have figured out this league.
What about the victory log?
One of the most popular members of the Timbers team is not a player. It is their lumberjack mascot, Timber Joey, who celebrates each goal (and clean sheet) at home games by sawing off a slab of wood from what is called ‘the victory log’, which sits behind the goal at one end of the ground and in front of the Timbers Army.
These sacred emblems denoting success are then presented to the players following a match. Players who carry a log slice back into the locker room following a match have been recognised with great honour.
So important is the victory log that it has been put on the back of a pick-up truck and hand delivered the 2,500 miles from Portland to Atlanta for this one match. The hope? A return to Portland much smaller than when it arrived.
So who brings home the MLS Cup?
For a one-off game, it is difficult to predict. Atlanta have progressed to this stage with relative ease, which is a result of them being at the top of their game. For the Timbers, the unheralded fifth seeds in the play-offs, it’s been the story of perseverance under extreme pressure. Atlanta will have home advantage, but the unnerved Timbers players are used to upsetting the odds.
Who are the key men for Atlanta United?
Miguel Almiron – #10
A reported target for several Premier League clubs – with Newcastle said to be his biggest admirers – the Paraguayan playmaker is lightning-quick with the ball and has a beautiful left foot. On the counter attack, he’s deadly.
Josef Martinez – #7
This season’s Golden Boot winner and winner of MLS’s Most Valuable Player prize. With 34 goals to his name – an MLS record – the striker can find the net in so many different ways. He is unforgiving to defenders and ruthless with any sort of space should the ball find his feet in the box.
Darlington Nagbe – #6
Formerly on the Timbers’ books, the midfielder is known as ‘the fixer’ for how he solves problems when on the ball. He boasts impressive breakaway pace and wonderful balance, darting away from opponents with ease.
Michael Parkhurst – #3
He’s the captain and calm leader of a youthful, energetic side. He has contested five MLS Cup finals, but he has yet to get his hands on the trophy. A versatile defender, he is set to the be at the heart of a three-man central defence.
Who are the key men for Portland Timbers?
Diego Valeri – #8
The 2017 season’s MVP, the man they call ‘El Maestro’ has been irresistible in this play-off run. He possesses wonderful passing ability, is willing to take risks, and offers a cool head in front of goal. He was part of the Timbers team which won the MLS Cup in 2015.
Sebastian Blanco – #10
A fizzy pop that never loses its bubbles, Blanco is diminutive in size but his personality on the pitch more than makes up for it. He has endeared himself to the Portland faithful with his fierceness and fiery temper. It also helps that he can score a screamer when the chips are down. Left foot, right foot, it doesn’t matter to Blanco as he can wiggle in and out of space and present a wide range of passes in the final third.
Liam Ridgewell – #24
The veteran English defender carries the most experience in arguably the toughest league in the world, with more than 300 Premier League appearances to his name. That’s more than any other player in this match (Brad Guzan, Atlanta’s goalkeeper, is a close second). Perhaps the best ball-playing centre-half in the league, he has a lovely left foot and a masterful way of managing the back-line and is playing some of his best football since moving to MLS. He lifted the 2015 cup as captain of the Timbers.
Diego Chara – #21
The N’Golo Kante of MLS. Inexcusably, he won’t show up in any year-end league awards, but ask any player or manager who they would want to build their team around and Chara would be a recurring pick. Breaks up everything from the opposition, protects his back four, and has the ability to drive the ball forward. Truly a treat to watch, he was also part of the 2015 Timbers side.
The MLS Cup between Atlanta United and Portland Timbers takes place in Atlanta on Saturday, December 8, kick-off 8pm local time (It will kick off in the UK at 1am on Sunday, December 9)