Timbers hope to topple high-powered Atlanta United

The Portland Timbers understand being the underdog for the MLS Cup on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean they will be awed by host Atlanta United’s high-powered offense or the expected record crowd of more than 70,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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“Everyone’s putting it on Atlanta to win at home and they’ve had a great season and this and that, but that don’t make a difference when it comes to playoffs and it certainly don’t make a difference when it comes to a final,” Portland defender Liam Ridgewell said.

Atlanta (21-7-6 regular season) deserves its favorite status after finishing two points behind the New York Red Bulls in the overall standings. The Red Bulls set a Major League record with 71 points, but Atlanta defeated them 4-1 in the total goals, two-leg Eastern Conference final.

The second-year franchise is playing for its first championship.

Portland (15-10-9), fifth in the Western Conference, advanced to its second MLS Cup in four seasons with a 3-2 aggregate series win over Sporting Kansas City.

The Timbers were also on the road for the 2015 MLS Cup but defeated Columbus Crew SC 2-1.

“In 2015 we made the playoffs in similar fashion,” Portland midfielder Diego Chara said. “This time it’s a bit (more) challenging because we are facing Atlanta and people are already saying they’re champions right now.”

It certainly feels that way to some Atlanta city officials.

“I was texting the mayor (Keisha Lance Bottoms) the other evening, Thursday night, and she already planned on a parade,” United owner Arthur Blank told the media earlier this week.

No matter the outcome, the MLS Cup attendance record should fall. The mark is 61,316 at Gillette Stadium in 2002 when the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the host New England Revolution 1-0 in extra time.

Atlanta boasts 2018 MLS MVP Josef Martinez, who set the MLS-record with 31 goals. United led the league with 70 goals and is the first team to have consecutive 70-goal seasons.

The match has extra meaning for Atlanta teammates Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, who as members of the New England Revolution lost three straight MLS Cups (2005-07).

“I’m happy to be back with him with a chance to win a title,” Parkhurst said. “Hopefully this one goes better than the other three.”

Larentowicz finally won it in 2010 for Colorado, while Parkhurst lost a fourth time for the Crew against Portland.

Posted in EPL/MLS, Top Fantasy Picks

New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United
Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs — Conference Championship, Second Leg

Red Bull Arena — Harrison
November 29 — 7:30 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, TSN2, TVAS2

Atlanta United’s first win over the New York Red Bulls in history put the Five Stripes on the brink of history as “Tata” Martino’s squad takes a commanding 3-0 aggregate lead into the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship Thursday night at Red Bull Arena.

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While Atlanta are looking to book a first MLS Cup Final berth, the Red Bulls will need a historic comeback to reach the final for the second time 10 years after their first trip.

MLS Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez opened the scoring on Sunday, chesting down a perfect Jeff Larentowicz cross and beating Luis Robles.

The Red Bulls thought they had the equalizer, and a critical away goal, when Bradley Wright-Phillips put a low shot past Brad Guzan. But the goal was called back following Video Review when it was ruled Alex Muyl screened the Atlanta goalkeeper in an offside position.

Franco Escobar fired home an insurance tally with a sensational first-time strike in the 71st minute and Hector Villalba came off the bench to score what could prove to be the decisive goal in the series, a low stoppage-time strike to give Atlanta a comfortable 3-0 lead after 90 minutes.

New York Red Bulls

No team has ever won a two-leg aggregate playoff series in MLS after after a three-goal deficit in the first leg.

The Red Bulls, though, have a strong belief that they can buck the odds.

Head coach Chris Armas, who was criticized heavily for changing his team’s tactics in Atlanta, uses the example of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when the Red Bulls won 3-0 at home against Columbus Crew SC after losing the opening leg, 1-0, at MAPFRE Stadium.

“Look, it is going to be difficult. It always was going to be,” Armas said after the game. “We put ourselves in a hole, but we came out of a series where we scored three in our building. That is the goal. That’s the starting point. We will score the first goal, and the rest will follow. We will come out a little bit differently with the energy and the fight that is going to be needed. It is pretty clear what is needed to be done. We are going to go home, and we are going to get it done.”

The health of star fullback Kemar Lawrence will be a big talking point until kickoff. The Jamaican international suffered a meniscus injury in training leading up to the first leg. He was replaced by Connor Lade.

“Kemar is a big part of things around here. He has had a great year, we all know that,” Armas said. “Maybe he will be back for Leg 2, we’ll see, he is day-to-day. But more importantly, Connor Lade stepped in and did a good job. He was solid. He gave everything like we knew that he would. It was a big test, a lot of direct play. He was fearless on the night. Connor stood up admirably, I believe.”

Suspended: None
Suspended after next caution: None
International duty: None
Injury Report: OUT: M – Florian Valot (torn left ACL), D – Kyle Duncan (torn right ACL), M – Vincent Bezecourt (right MCL surgery), D – Tommy Redding (shoulder surgery), M – Ben Mines (broken left clavicle surgery); QUESTIONABLE: D – Kemar Lawrence (meniscus injury)

Projected Starting XI

(4-2-3-1, right to left)
GK: Luis Robles — Michael Murillo, Tim Parker, Aaron Long, Connor Lade — Tyler Adams, Sean Davis — Alex Muyl, Kaku, Danny Royer — Bradley Wright-Phillips

Notes: New York won just one possession in the attacking third in their 3-0 defeat on Sunday, tied for their fewest in a game this season. They are 0W-2L-1D in those games in 2018. … The Red Bulls scored 3+ goals in seven league home games in 2018 (7W). Five of the seven games had scorelines that would send this matchup to extra time or allow New York to advance to the MLS Cup Final.

Atlanta United

He is not the most heralded Atlanta United player, not even close. But fullback Franco Escobar came up with a man-of-the-match performance in the opening leg, with a sensational goal and a huge assist in the second half to send the Five Stripes to Harrison with a 3-0 cushion.

“When we wanted to sign Franco, this is the player we wanted to sign: the Franco we’ve seen the last five or six games,” Martino said after the game. “He’s adapted very well to the position, he’s able to get forward, is versatile and physical. He’s scored two goals in the last six or seven games for us that have been very important.”

In addition to sparking the offense, Escobar was part of a defensive unit that has conceded just once in three playoff games.

“We knew that we had to be solid defensively,” Martino said. “We knew going into the playoffs it was going to be very important to be able to keep clean sheets. And that’s what we tried to do. And we’ve played three games now against top teams in the Eastern Conference, and we’ve held them to one goal. So, we knew that was going to be key.”

Suspended: None
Suspended after next caution: None
International duty: None
Injury Report: OUT: D – Sal Zizzo (right knee injury), D – Mikey Ambrose (right knee surgery), F – Brandon Vazquez (foot injury)

Projected Starting XI

(5-3-2, right to left)
GK: Brad Guzan — Franco Escobar, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez, Greg Garza — Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi, Julian Gressel — Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron

Notes: Atlanta allowed New York to complete just 62.0% of their passes in the first leg of the series, the fifth-lowest passing accuracy they have ever allowed in a MLS match (inc. postseason). … Atlanta have won six of their last nine road games (3L), conceding multiple goals in four of the matches. They have allowed 3+ goals in a league road game seven times in franchise history (1W-6L).

All-Time Series (Regular Season)

Overall: New York Red Bulls 3 wins, 7 goals … Atlanta United 0 wins, 2 goals … 1 draw
At New York: Red Bulls 1 win, 2 goals … Atlanta United 0 wins, 0 goals … 1 draw
Last meeting at New York: New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 0 (Sept. 30, 2018)

Officials

Referee: Jair Marrufo
Assistant Referees: Frank Anderson, Brian Poeschel
4th Official: Ismail Elfath
VAR: Christopher Penso

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Posted in EPL/MLS, Top Fantasy Picks