Sebastian Blanco and Graham Zusi
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This Week in MLS - November 27, 2018

  • Sporting KC hoping to stonewall Timbers again with MLS Cup in sight
  • Will Atlanta reprise 50th anniversary of city’s first sports title?
  • Portland head coach Savarese’s risk work the reward
  • Red Bulls need comeback of historic proportions to reach MLS Cup
  • MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Notes
 
Sporting KC hoping to stonewall Timbers again with MLS Cup in sight
Sporting Kansas City’s stellar defensive season has extended to the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs and has the club on the brink of reaching MLS Cup for the first time since winning the title in 2013. After finishing the regular season with 13 shutouts, second-most in MLS, SKC shut down the Portland Timbers in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Championship. A victory at Children’s Mercy Park on Thursday in Leg 2 (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN Deportes / TSN2 / TVAS2) would clinch MLS Cup and further establish SKC’s reign as the most dominant defense in the league, giving up the fewest goals of any MLS club over the past three seasons combined
 
Veteran defender Graham Zusi has been part of an incredible run for SKC, with the club winning a major title in four of the past six years (one MLS Cup, three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups), with the U.S. National Teamer not missing a single minute of action this season for Sporting. SKC’s offensive attack is spearheaded by 22-year-old forward Dániel Sallói, who led the club with 11 goals in the regular season, and earlier this year became the first academy product in MLS history to score two goals in a single postseason match.
 
While Sporting is the higher-seeded club in the series, recent history between the clubs favors Portland, which dramatically defeated SKC in a penalty kicks en route to winning the 2015 MLS Cup. The Timbers have been road warriors this postseason, clinching two separate postseason series on the road in Dallas and Seattle. If reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP Diego Valeri can overcome the stout SKC defense and secure a crucial away goal for Portland, the club could return to its second MLS Cup in four seasons.
 
Will Atlanta reprise 50th anniversary of city’s first sports title?
It’s the golden anniversary of the city’s first pro sports championship, and Atlanta United has a lot in common with that first title-winning team.
 
Fifty years ago, it wasn’t an American football team or a baseball team that was dominating the local sports scene. It was a soccer team, the Atlanta Chiefs, and they won the inaugural North American Soccer League Championship in 1968 with their 3-0 defeat of the San Diego Toros. Led by 1968 NASL Coach of the Year Phil Woosnam (Wales), and in only their second year of existence, the Atlanta Chiefs were boasting record attendance of 7,000 per game with quality production on the field contributing to an 18-7-6 record.
 
On a parallel path this season, Atlanta United are defining the sports growth, success and passion in their hometown, and they might be drawing some similarities to the Atlanta Chiefs along the way. In only Atlanta United’s second MLS season, they are led by 2018 MLS Coach of the Year Gerardo “Tata” Martino, and the team is shattering home attendance records with upwards of 10 times as many fans as its soccer predecessor in some cases. On the field, Atlanta United’s winning 21-7-6 regular season record propelled them to an explosive run through the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, and they are one game away from hosting MLS Cup on Dec. 8.
 
With momentum in their favor, Atlanta United could be on the verge of remaking soccer history.
 
Portland head coach Savarese’s risk worth the reward
Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese uprooted his entire life, spending months working around the clock on his new role across the country with the Oregon-based club. Now entering Leg 2 of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship, Savarese could join Bob Bradley (1998, Chicago Fire) as one of only two first-year head coaches to reach MLS Cup in their first MLS coaching seasons.
 
The former MetroStars (1996-98), New England Revolution (1999) and San Jose Earthquakes (2000) player experienced a rough start to his opening MLS coaching campaign, going 0-3-2 in his first five games before rebounding with a strong 15-match unbeaten streak to redeem Portland’s season and set the club up for a postseason run.
 
The Caracas, Venezuela, native led the Timbers to an 11-2-4 home record, which tied for best in the Western Conference this season, as the club’s 15-10-9 overall record bettered its 15-11-8 finish from 2017.
 
A proven champion before coming to MLS, Savarese has stepped up to the Timbers after serving as head coach and sporting director of the New York Cosmos, where he led his clubs to four championship appearances, including three titles in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
 
He’s found a way to win, but will Savarese’s success continue all the way to MLS Cup?
 
Red Bulls need comeback of historic proportions to reach MLS Cup
The New York Red Bulls will have to add another chapter to an already historic campaign if they are to host the 2018 MLS Cup at Red Bull Arena in two weeks' time.
 
No team in MLS Cup Playoffs history has ever overturned a three-goal deficit from the opening leg of a two-game aggregate-goal series and gone on to advance to the next round. Before Atlanta United's win Sunday, teams had won by three-goal margin in the first leg on four occasions – and in every instance have gone on to the next round. A three-goal advantage after the first leg of a conference championship has happened just once previously – in 2012, when the LA Galaxy defeated Seattle Sounders FC 3-0 in the opening match, before winning the series 4-2 on aggregate.
 
In fact, at any point in any two-game series in MLS Cup Playoffs annals, as much as a three-goal deficit has been overcome just twice. The first came in 2003, when the San Jose Earthquakes were down 0-4 on aggregate early on in the second leg, before coming back to defeat the LA Galaxy 5-4 on aggregate in their conference semifinal series. In 2016, Toronto FC trailed the Montreal Impact 3-0 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship after 53 minutes, before making their way back to a 3-2 loss in that match and eventually winning the series 5-3 on aggregate.
 
But the Red Bulls could be setting the stage for becoming the first team to pull off such a comeback. They come into the second leg of the conference championship having not allowed a goal at Red Bull Arena since Aug. 5, now 577 minutes played at home since last conceding. Over the course of the 2018 regular season, they won four games by shutout while scoring three goals or more – all of those having come on their home ground.
 
 
MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Notes
 
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP – LEG 2
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018
No. 1 New York Red Bulls vs. No. 2 Atlanta United, 7 p.m. ET (FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN, TVA Sports)
  • Atlanta United will carry a commanding lead in the second leg Eastern Conference Championship after winning the first leg 3-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
  • Since going to a two-game aggregate series in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2003, five teams have now held a three-goal lead after the first leg. The first four all advanced to the next round – the lone time in the conference championship coming in 2012, when the LA Galaxy won the first leg 3-0 (advancing to MLS Cup 4-2 on aggregate).
  • Josef Martínez scored his third goal this year in the MLS Cup Playoffs, all coming in the past two games. Martínez has now scored 34 goals in regular season and postseason play this year (31 regular season, three postseason), surpassing the all-time single-season record of 33 goals set by Roy Lassiter in 1996 (27 regular season, 6 MLS Cup Playoffs).
  • The Red Bulls did not score a goal in their two away matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs this season. They won their only home match in the postseason by a 3-0 scoreline, defeating Columbus Crew SC in the second leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series.
  • Atlanta United have won all three of their matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs this year, the only team in the postseason with a perfect record.
  • Brad Guzan was credited with one save in recording his second shutout of the MLS Cup Playoffs this year, his third in four playoff games over the last two seasons. Guzan has allowed one goal in his past five games in the MLS Cup Playoffs (dating back to 2007).
  • The win in the first leg was the first ever for Atlanta United against the Red Bulls, in five meetings all-time in regular season and postseason play. Atlanta United had taken one point from the first four meetings between the clubs, the one points coming in a goalless draw last year at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls claimed a 2-0 win in the lone meeting in Harrison this year, on Sept. 30.
 
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP – LEG 2
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018
No. 1 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 5 Portland Timbers, 8:30 p.m. CT (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVA Sports)
  • The teams reached a scoreless draw in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship at Providence Park on Sunday evening.
  • SKC has posted shutouts in six of its past eight matches at Providence Park, including both regular season and postseason games.
  • Sporting are winless in their past nine away matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs, dating back to 2012. The Timbers are undefeated in their past four away matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs, winning two and drawing two.
  • Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia was credited with six saves in recording the shutout in the first leg, the first of his MLS Cup Playoffs career (in 11 appearances).
  • Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella was credited with one save in recording the shutout in the first leg, the second of his MLS Cup Playoffs career (in 14 appearances).
  • Sporting took a 3-0 win in the only league meeting between the teams this season at Children’s Mercy Park, on Aug. 19. The Timbers have gained points on three of their last five visits to KC (one win, two draws).
  • The teams have now played two games in the MLS Cup Playoffs, with draws on both occasions. When the teams met previously, in the Knockout Round in 2015, the match was leveled 2-2 through 120 minutes before the teams had a penalty shootout that lasted 22 rounds, won by the Timbers, the 22 attempts an MLS record.
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