It's time to take a look at the 2018 MLS Cup matchup between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers. For this exercise, we are going by pure talent. MLSsoccer.com will have plenty of articles dissecting tactical and stylistic advantages. I want to break it down by individual ability alone. Once we establish who holds the advantage in talent, then we can start to understand where the advantages may lie, and what deficits need to be fixed.
Let’s assume the teams field the lineups they’ve used throughout the postseason:
The players in those lineups could be split into defenders, midfielders and attackers in various ways. Diego Valeri, for example, plays as an attacking center mid on offense but generally acts as a second striker on defense. There’s no perfect way to group them, but I’ve divided them into the following groups.
Atlanta: Escobar, Larentowicz, Parkhurst, LGP, Garza
Portland: Valentin, Mabiala, Ridgewell, Villafaña
Atlanta: Remedi, Gressel, Nagbe
Portland: Chara, Guzman, Valeri
Atlanta: Martinez, Almiron
Portland: Blanco, Polo, Ebobisse
My three criteria for goalkeepers:
- Who is more likely to make the saves he’s supposed to make: In this game, it’s Brad Guzan. Guzan hasn’t made many crazy saves this year, but he’s generally made the stops he needs to make.
- Who is more likely to make a huge mistake that will cost his team the game? Portland’s Jeff Attinella. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened recently when Attinella dropped a cross to gift Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz a goal, and that memory can plant a dangerous tone of doubt in ‘keepers.
- Who is more likely to make the huge saves to win his team again? Attinella. The Timbers' No. 1 has had some huge games this year, including the second leg against Sporting Kansas City last week. If a team wins this game because a goalkeeper stands on his head, it will be Portland.
There’s more variance in Attinella’s game and he’s more likely to be the star of MLS Cup, but managers prefer predictability from their goalkeepers. If you had to put a name on a team sheet, you’d go with Guzan.
Michael Parkhurst was a finalist for Defender of the Year, yet Leandro Gonzalez Pirez might be the more talented of the two, and together they formed one of the two best center back pairings in the league. Franco Escobar was the star of the Conference Championship against the Red Bulls, and a fully fit Greg Garza should be considered one of the top five left backs in the league. Jeff Larentowicz might be considered the weak link, but he’s played like an All-Star at times this year.
Portland work well as a group, but I doubt any of them would make it into Atlanta’s starting lineup.
The answer is almost always Diego Chara and Diego Valeri.
Atlanta’s midfield has become a force in the last few weeks. Eric Remedi brings the bite, Darlington Nagbe offers the guile and Julian Gressel contributes the lungs. They’ve been tough to break down, quick on the break, and calm in possession when the moment has called for it. They dominated NYCFC’s group of high-end talent in the middle in the Conference Semifinals. In the next round, they had no problem with Tyler Adams and Co. But Valeri and Chara are two of the best midfielders of the last decade (plus the third guy, David Guzman, just played in a World Cup).
I’m sure Tata loves his midfield right now, but I’d bet if you gave him some truth serum, he’d slide into Chara and Valeri’s DMs.
If you were to create a list of the top attacking tandems in MLS history, Martinez and Almiron would be somewhere near the top: in the echelon with Marco Etcheverry/Roy Lassiter, Landon Donovan/Robbie Keane and Sebastian Giovinco/Jozy Altidore.
Jeremy Ebobisse has come a long way in 2018 and Sebastian Blanco has been marvelous this season — they certainly provide enough ability to win the game — but you’d pick the combo that could get sold for north of a combined $40 million this offseason.
Tito Villalba is by far the best sub in the league right now. Imagine dealing with Martinez and Almiron for 60 minutes and then a fresh Villalba comes waltzing on the field.
Also, it would probably be some type of poetic ending for Ezequiel Barco, the most expensive player in MLS history, to come on and provide the winner.
There are big personnel and tactical decisions to make heading into the game — there’s logic suggesting both teams should make adjustments — but I don’t think one coach is more equipped than the other.
Tata has more overall managerial experience, but Savarese has won three finals in the last five years. They’ve both made all of the right moves this year, specifically in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.