The 2018 MLS Cup has it all. Stars, history, legacies, atmosphere and more. Here are 12 storylines to pay special attention to on Saturday (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS) when Atlanta United play the Portland Timbers for the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
Tata's last hoorah
As has been confirmed for a month, Tata Martino will depart Atlanta United after the final. More than anyone, he'll want to dismount with some silverware. The perfect ending.
Tata's legacy will be even more unassailable with a trophy. Thanks to his star power and man-management, on top of the resources given to him by Arthur Blank, Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra, Atlanta have skipped the typical growing pains of expansion teams. And, for the naysayers pointing out the financial backing he received, just ask the LA Galaxy over the last couple years if a big payroll guarantees greatness.
Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron are on the record, in their own words in separate Players' Tribune pieces, speaking to his influence in them signing for ATL. Almiron hadn't heard of Atlanta before, but he said yes. "El Tata?" Martinez asked when approached, followed by: "Tell me more about Atlanta."
Another record to fall
Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Atlanta United have rewritten the record books in their two short years in MLS. It's time to break out the white-out, because another record is about to fall.
The prior attendance record for an MLS Cup final is 61,316, when the Galaxy beat New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium in 2002. Saturday's crowd will almost definitely surpass that.
Miggy and Josef
First and foremost, the star power on the pitch will be incredible. The characters are why we watch, they're why we fall in love with the game and why we keep coming back. And at the Benz, the luminaries will shine brightest.
For Atlanta, it's Martinez and Almiron. Bobby Warshaw puts the pair alongside Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan as one of the best attacking duos in modern MLS history and you'd be hard pressed to find an argument to disprove that. They finished first and second in 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP voting, with Martinez taking the trophy after posting a ridiculous 31-goal regular season.
While Martinez won MVP, many believe Almiron to be the league's best player. He's subject of rumors from Europe almost daily, with Newcastle most recently reported to have won his sweepstakes. Saturday could be his last game in MLS, meaning that it's the last time we may have the pleasure of watching one of the greatest duos in MLS history.
Diego y Diego
How many attacking and defensive midfield pairings have been better, and more successful, than Diego Valeri and Diego Chara? The former is an MVP, one of the league's marquee attacking players and a hero in Portland. The latter was Timbers' first Designated Player, an underrated winning presence in the league at the heart of Portland's midfield and a huge reason why they've been so successful.
Not to forget Sebastian Blanco, of course. Blanco has already put a huge stamp on these playoffs, crucial to the Timbers' road to the finals with three goals in their last four games.
Two quick points:
- The next time Valeri dribbles, whisper to yourself DiegoDiegoDiegoDiegoDiegoDiego and just try not to smile. It's impossible.
- Winter storm Diego is headed for Atlanta on Saturday. I'm not making this up:
Feelin' like 2015
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We've all heard that quote – or a variation of it – in history class, so many times that it's become cliche. But, it serves as a cliched intro to discuss the Timbers 2015 MLS Cup triumph, because their route looks quite similar in 2018.
The following are some of facts from the Timbers’ 2015 MLS Cup run: Knockout Round win; penalty shootout win; Valeri and Chara doin' the business; two second legs on the road; MLS Cup final away from home; Michael Parkhurst anchoring the opposition’s backline.
In Atlanta's last home game, they incorporated the entire stadium with a fantastic tifo. Tifo is more fun when shared with everyone.
They went hard for the Eastern Conference Championship, what do they have in store for MLS Cup? They won't say, but they promise it'll be good.
Contrasting play styles
Matt Doyle tackles this better and longer, and I'd strongly recommend reading it at any point before the game, but generally speaking, Atlanta will look to build out of the back while Portland will look to counter.
Atlanta have played different than normal for most of these playoffs. They saw past NYCFC with a combative, gritty win away from home before counter-attacking with a lead at home in Leg 2. Against the New York Red Bulls, they played more like themselves, because RBNY elected not to press, and stormed to a 3-0 win. In Leg 2, just like against NYCFC, they set up shop and defended because they needed no more goals.
On Saturday opposite the Timbers, it'll be more like Leg 1 vs. the Red Bulls. Portland will be happy to concede possession and dare Atlanta to break them down. Which style will prevail?
First South American manager to win MLS Cup
Whether it's Venezuelan Gio Savarese or Argentinian Tata Martino, 2018 will see the first South American manager hoist MLS Cup. It's fitting because…
On the pitch, there will be no shortage of Argentinians. Valeri, Blanco, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar, Ezequiel Barco, Lucas Melano and Eric Remedi are all from the country, while Tito Villalba was born in Argentina (though represents Paraguay on the international stage).
Can Parkhurst finally hoist MLS Cup?
In nine MLS seasons, Michael Parkhurst has made the playoffs eight times. This season will be his fifth MLS Cup final, but will it be his first title or more heartbreak?
Parkhurst is winless in his first four finals, the most recent of which came against the Timbers in 2015 when he was playing for Columbus. They defeated the top-seeded New York Red Bulls in the Conference Championship that year, too.
“Apparently I don’t know,” Parkhurst joked when asked what it takes to win MLS Cup. “Take advantage of the opportunity. That’s what I’ve been telling these guys. You don’t know if you’ll get another chance at it. I’ve been fortunate enough that I have. But you never know. We have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Battle of back-to-back MVPs
For just the second time in MLS history, back-to-back MVPs will face each other in MLS Cup, with 2018 winner Martinez lining up opposite 2017 winner Valeri. It's the first time that both players will be representing the club they won the award with.
Additionally, Martinez can become just the fifth player in league history to win MVP and MLS Cup in the same season.
Dancing with the Stars
Regardless of who wins, there will be some great dancing on display amid the celebrations. Whether it's Escobar and Barco, or Dairon Asprilla & Co., the winner will be punctuated properly with some moves under a drizzle of confetti.
Speaking of confetti, someone is going to step up and do a confetti-angle. Who's it going to be?