Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of ATLvPOR in MLS Cup final

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Another year, another journey to The Big Game. Atlanta United host the Portland Timbers on Saturday in the 2018 MLS Cup final (7:30 pm ET | FOX, UniMás; TSN, TVAS).

Thanks for reading all year. Now, let’s dive in:

Atlanta’s Tactical Plan

Drag the Timbers backline upfield

Atlanta scored 70 goals this year, and that should feel groundbreaking because there aren’t a lot of teams in MLS history who’ve scored 70 goals in a season. But it doesn’t feel groundbreaking because, guess what? Atlanta scored 70 goals last year, too. They are skillful, and dynamic, and so, so fast in attack. Anyone who tells you that athleticism doesn’t matter in soccer never had to do a 60-yard doggie trying to run down Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez in the open field.

And eventually, Tata Martino decided, “Hey, forget the pretty soccer – let’s make them try to run down Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez in the open field.” Since the start of the playoffs, Atlanta have primarily been a sit-and-counter team, keeping play in front of them until a chance to explode into space presented itself.

Portland’s not going to give them that chance. The smart money is on Gio Savarese keeping his team in a nice, deep block, and defending in the defensive third. They’re going to invite the hosts to have probably 65- or 70-percent possession, and that means Atlanta’s going to have to carry both the ball and the game while avoiding getting countered on themselves.

They can do it. They scored 140 goals over the last two seasons for a reason, and they annihilated the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship when Chris Armas put his team in a shell that was juuuuuuust a little bit too passive:

Portland have given up similar goals this postseason – they haven’t even been close to air tight at the back. Atlanta need to remember that, and need to be patient and methodical in their build-up, and must, must, must, must, must not get stretched and sloppy throwing numbers forward. Julian Gressel, as you can see above, is particularly adept at finding those moments to break the lines with his off-the-ball movement, and both wingbacks will happily get forward if you give them space.

The best way to do that? Hold the ball a little bit deeper, toward midfield, instead of driving straight into the attacking third. Coax the Timbers up a bit, and then send runners through. 

Portland’s Tactical Plan

Deny service, win second balls and run like hell

There have been two primary ways that teams have tried to deal with Atlanta’s attack: Play a 5-4-1, with an extra defender in the box to keep track of Josef, or play a 4-5-1, with an extra player in midfield to deny service to Josef. On June 24, in a 1-1 draw between these teams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Savarese opted for the 5-4-1. It wasn’t pretty, but you can’t argue much with results.

“Results” are what the Timbers have gotten on the road over the past eight weeks, starting with a 4-1 drubbing at RSL in October that basically guaranteed Portland a playoff berth. Then after punting on Decision Day, they went to Dallas in the Knockout Round and countered their way to a 2-1 road win. Then they went to Seattle and held on for dear life in a 3-2 loss that was actually a win. And then they went to Sporting and held on for dear life in a 3-2 win.

This is the Platonic Ideal of the goal the Timbers want to score on Saturday:

They absolutely have to keep the game in front of them, because the minute they turn and start running toward their own goal, they’ll get roasted. If they do keep the game in front of them, and win anything that’s loose in central midfield, then they can turn the tables and do some roasting of their own.

The good news is they seem to realize this. The Timbers aren’t about to try to go toe-to-toe in possession, and will happily concede plenty of the ball if it means Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse all get a chance to go out and run.

X-Factor No. 1

Set pieces

It feels like this should always be X-Factor No. 1 in any game/series/season, right? Sebastian Giovinco was the deadliest free-kick taker in MLS history in 2017, and TFC won the domestic treble. Giovinco was 1-for-42 in 2018, and they missed the playoffs. These things aren’t entirely repeatable, even for the greats.

That said, good set-piece design on both ends is repeatable, and this is one area where the Timbers have a clear edge (unless it’s the last three minutes of the game and Kevin Kratz is on the field). It’s not that Atlanta United are bad on restarts – they’re actually pretty good. But Portland are really, really good.

X-Factor No. 2

Formational flexibility

Both managers have futzed around with multiple looks throughout the season, and some have been more rewarding than others. The Timbers toggled between a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-2-1 to a 5-3-2 and a 5-4-1 and then back to a 4-3-2-1 before finally settling on the 4-2-3-1, the world’s current default formation. It’s provided them a pretty robust defensive shell while, at the same time, keeping the four attackers – Ebobisse, Valeri, Blanco and Andy Polo – connected enough to advance as a unit when counterattacking opportunities present:

And really, that’s all they’ve looked comfortable in for months. I can’t imagine them going with any other shape unless Savarese is so hung up on the threat posed by Josef in the box that he goes with five at the back. It’s possible, but doing so probably means the Portland counter would be non-existent.

Atlanta’s 5-3-2 is now their go-to look, and they’ve used it well in the playoffs. But they used a 3-5-2 for large chunks of the regular season, and a 3-4-3, and a 4-2-3-1, and had success with all of them. Success as in those 140 goals I mentioned over the last two years, and 69 points – the second-highest total in MLS history – in 2018. It was a nice season.

Tata can play around a bit here. I wouldn’t be at all shocked if he came out in a 5-3-2 that morphed into a 4-3-3 with a strong emphasis on combining down the left flank sometime inside 20 minutes. If they find that weak link, they will exploit it.

X-Factor No. 3

The bench

Truth is both benches have been impressive this postseason. When Larrys Mabiala went down, Bill Tuiloma did the job. When Jeff Larentowicz was out, Miles Robinson looked the part of an MLS starter. Tito Villalba and Ezequiel Barco have pretty consistently been dangerous late for the Five Stripes, and Dairon Asprilla is forever and ever an MLS playoffs legend for his off-the-bench heroics. Amen.

Both managers can make proactive subs if they want to (of the two, Savarese’s the likelier to pull that trigger).

Match-Up No. 1

Greg Garza vs. Zarek Valentin/Alvas Powell

As I said at the top, Atlanta’s going to want to pull Portland’s backline up. That could mean the whole backline, but will more likely – or more often – be the fullbacks. And in particular it will be the right fullback, which is what teams have targeted throughout the playoffs.

Each of the first five goals Portland conceded in the playoffs came via sequences that started on that side. Sometimes it was a cross that just wasn’t closed down, and other times it was combination play. The other two goals they conceded? They came via sequences that were finished by the opposing left winger. It is a sore spot right now.

That’s what Garza lives for. He’s probably the most attack-minded left back in MLS.

Match-Up No. 2

Eric Remedi vs. Diego Chara’s late runs

Remember this?

RSL didn’t have anyone who could keep up with him. Atlanta don’t, either. Remedi will have to commit tactical fouls and hope Atlanta get the friendly whistles they’re used to try.

If Portland’s able to combine on the run down one flank or the other, look for Chara going supersonic up the middle. He doesn’t do it often, but when he gets an opening he can be devastating.

What’s it all mean?

Home teams are 4-for-6 in MLS Cup since 2012, and while Atlanta weren’t, by any measure, the best home team in the league, they were still very, very good. And by every measure, they’ve been better than Portland pretty much all season.

Except, of course, for the one time the two teams met head-to-head. Sure, the underlying numbers and eye test said that Atlanta dominated that game, but the boxscore said it was 1-1. And now Portland have made a habit of going on the road and playing games where the scoreline’s tight, and they get what they need, but the eye test and the underlying numbers …

The Timbers haven’t just lost the xG battle in 4-out-of-5 games this postseason: They’ve absolutely been smashed.

They have, of course, advanced anyway, and in Valeri/Chara/Blanco they have real match-winners (one way or another), and they are talented and balanced. But when the eye test and the underlying numbers all agree so strongly, the boxscore has a way of coming around in the end. The Timbers have been dancing on the knife’s edge, and sooner or later they’re gonna slip.

To put it another way: If Atlanta lose this, then maybe Tata really is cursed in the big game, and maybe it really is a cursed sports town. If I were the mayor, I’d be planning a parade, too, but I’d consider waiting to publicize it until after that final whistle.

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