From rookie backup to veteran No. 1, Jeff Attinella returns to MLS Cup

Jeff Attinella - closeup - holding ball

BEAVERTON, Ore. – The last time Jeff Attinella was on a team that made it to MLS Cup, he was a wide-eyed rookie backing up arguably the greatest goalkeeper the league has ever seen.

On Saturday, the Portland Timbers’ veteran backstop will make his return to the league’s biggest stage, this time as the starter for his Western Conference Champion Portland side that is set to take on Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS).

Attinella was the primary backup to Nick Rimando on the 2013 Real Salt Lake team that won the Western Conference before losing the title game in stinging fashion to Sporting Kansas City in a penalty-kick shootout — a result that’s given him even greater appreciation for the current moment.

“I remember how much it hurt not winning,” Attinella told reporters after Portland’s training session Monday. “That was my first year in the league and when you make it to the final in your first year you kind of think that’s the norm.

“And then the more years you play, you realize how difficult it is to get there and just how much it takes everybody from trainers to players, to everybody involved with the club – it takes a lot of work from everybody. So, I remember how much it hurt losing and I’m just excited to be back and get the opportunity to win one.”

From rookie backup to veteran No. 1, Jeff Attinella returns to MLS Cup -

Jeff Attinella with Real Salt Lake late in the 2013 season | USA Today Images

Times have changed quite a bit for Attinella since that 2013 season.

He was brought in by the Timbers ahead of the 2017 campaign without the promise of a starting job. But the allure of playing in a soccer-crazed market like Portland intrigued him, and he ended up grabbing a hold of the No. 1 job this year.

“My father-in-law isn’t a big soccer guy and when I was with Salt Lake, I used to always tell him when we played away at Portland, ‘Come check this place out,’” Attinella recalled. “‘Come check out the environment, come check out the stadium and the atmosphere and the crowd because you’ll become a soccer fan because it’s different than the things you’re used to seeing in MLS.’”

Now with a firm grasp on the starting role, the 30-year-old seems at home in his Pacific Northwest surroundings, providing a steady presence between the goalposts and even starting a children’s book publishing company with the help of his wife and her father.

As for Saturday, if the Timbers are to capture their second MLS Cup title, their mild-mannered 'keeper and Portland’s backline will almost certainly need a mammoth performance against Atlanta’s high-powered attack. They’ll also have to contend with the notoriously hostile environment at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – something that can be even more difficult for a goalkeeper at the mercy of the nearby home supporters.

But with these Timbers battle-tested and accustomed to playing in big games, Attinella thinks his team is up for the challenge.

“I think when we play at home, it’s always intense, it’s always that type of environment,” the Timbers goalkeeper said. “So, when you play as many home games as we do and that’s the environment every time you step on the field, it’s kind of the norm for us. We’re used to playing in front of large crowds, we’re used to playing in big atmospheres. I think that’s something that carries us on the road a little bit.

“It’s going to be awesome,” he added. “We’re going to enjoy every minute of this week, every minute that we’re on the field. In terms of MLS, you’re thinking two clubs that have really upped what MLS is. I think it’s two teams that play contrasting styles but I think it’ll make for a really fun game. The crowd’s going to be electric. It’s just going to be a really, really fun game to be a part of.”