ATLANTA — The Southern takeover of MLS is complete.
Atlanta United capped their astonishing first two years of existence with a confident 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers in the 2018 MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday night, delighting the biggest crowd in league history with a vintage performance spearheaded by a goal and assist from star striker Josef Martinez.
As some analysts had predicted, the two sides got off to a cagey start, Portland sitting deep and absorbing withering waves of pressure while Atlanta pressed tigerishly but failed to connect on the final pass. A duel between Martinez and Larrys Mabiala sent the Venezuelan tumbling in the Timbers penalty box, but referee Alan Kelly waved play on and a VAR check backed up his no-call.
Miguel Almiron finally created the first clear scoring chance of the game in the 29th minute, meeting a deep cross from Greg Garza with an acrobatic side volley, but Jeff Attinella dived to his right to parry the bouncing shot away from the net.
The affair blew open 10 minutes later as ATLUTD seized the lead by exploiting a moment of slackness by the Timbers in their own end.
The visitors clipped a half-clearance up to Jeremy Ebobisse, but the forward was dispossessed by a sliding Michael Parkhurst and Martinez beat Liam Ridgewell to the ball at the top of the penalty box, leaving the Venezuelan marksman with the relatively simple – for him – task of rounding Attinella and stroking his finish into an empty net.
Portland responded almost immediately. A few minutes later Ebobisse directed a header on target after good work down the right channel by Sebastian Blanco, only for Brad Guzan to make the save and send the fiery contest into halftime at 1-0.
The Timbers tried to mount a rally after the break, venturing forward to create danger in front of Guzan’s goal in the 52nd minute, but found themselves in a 2-0 hole mere moments later as the Five Stripes doubled their lead from a well-executed set piece.
Martinez was heavily involved, first winning a free kick along Atlanta’s left channel, then popping up at the near post to flick on Almiron’s driven service into the path of Franco Escobar at the back stick. The wide-open wingback made no mistake with a firm low strike into the bottom corner, sending the home fans into another bout of delirium.
The Timbers made three attacking-minded subs and pressed forward as they chased the game, but Guzan and his defense held firm and the Atlanta bench rushed the pitch at Kelly's final whistle to celebrate a memorable triumph.
- ATL TOO STRONG: The Timbers battled valiantly, but this was a definitive display of Tata Martino’s aggressive, attack-minded philosophy and it was hard to see the underdogs’ path to an upset. Setting the tone with their buzzing high press and snapping challenges, the Five Stripes ditched the risk-averse tactics used against the New York teams in their two previous playoff series and insisted the game be played on their terms, to good effect.
- MIDNIGHT FOR CINDERELLA: The squad from the Rose City caught lightning in a bottle with their unexpected run through the Western Conference bracket and have much to cherish from the first season under Giovanni Savarese. Though their formula didn’t work against a suffocating ATLUTD side in the final, their hordes of traveling supporters added greatly to this occasion and the future looks bright.
- JOSEF AND PARKY: Big players produce in big games, and the Five Stripes’ key cogs did exactly that on this occasion. Special props are due to match (and season!) MVP Martinez and captain Parkhurst, who made the play that led to the opening goal and was generally flawless in his defensive work. After so much heartbreak in his previous trips to the cup final with New England and Columbus, no one in black and red will cherish this win more than him.