In approximately two months, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium will host the Super Bowl, the premier event of football in the universe.
The other football — the sport in which feet are central to movement of the ball not a special phase of the game — has more-watched events than the MLS Cup. Major League Soccer is not considered the world’s premier league with regards to talent, payroll or support even during the three years between FIFA World Cups.
Still, comparisons were drawn between the anticipation of Atlanta United’s MLS Cup berth against Portland Timbers on Saturday and Super Bowl LIII in February.
The MLS media corps that attended Thursday’s press conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will not fill the press box like the Super Bowl is expected to, but the attendance of pregame media access was significant in comparison to the weekly coverage of the team in the 2018 season.
“Just look at all the people here,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino said. “I don’t know if this is the MLS final or the Super Bowl.”
While the scope of soccer in the United States has perhaps not caught on everywhere in the way it has in Atlanta, the gravity of Saturday’s match to the franchise’s loyal fanbase is considered perhaps the most important event the city has hosted since Georgia and Alabama played for the College Football Playoff National Championship in the same stadium in January.
Atlanta United is no longer a fad — if it ever was. The club has scorched MLS single-game, seasonal and playoff attendance records and reaches live audiences of more than 70,000 fans when it opens the top-most seats of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for marquee games. The team averaged more than 53,000 fans during the regular season, matching or passing several English Premier League, Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) and Serie A (Italy) clubs in the 2017-18 season. Atlanta United does not have the same history of some of the city’s professional sports franchises — the Atlanta Falcons, the Braves or the Hawks — but it has an opportunity to accomplish what just one of those teams have been able to do while affiliated with Atlanta: bring the city a championship.
The league’s plucky expansion team is matching up with a franchise with four MLS Cup Playoff appearances after qualifying for consecutive seasons in 2017 and 2018. The Timbers won the MLS Cup in 2015 against Columbus Crew SC. Diego Valeri, still Portland’s franchise midfielder, scored in the first half of that match. In Valeri’s MLS Cup Playoff career, Valeri has six goals and seven assists. His 13 points is first among active MLS players in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Valeri is tied with Sebastian Blanco with the team-lead in goals this season (10). Valeri has four of Portland’s five playoff goals, while Blanco has three.
As a franchise, Portland Timbers has received support similar to that of Atlanta United, but in a 21,000-seat stadium. Providence Park has sold out 144 consecutive regular season home games, spanning Portland’s first eight seasons as an MLS club.
The two teams contrast with regards to their styles of play. Atlanta United scored 70 goals to Portland’s 54 during the regular season. Atlanta United posted a goal differential of 26 compared to Portland’s differential of six.
Atlanta United and Portland Timbers met once during the regular season and played to a 1-1 draw. Portland scored in the 32nd minute at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and bunkered.
The Timbers took 12 shots all game compared to Atlanta United’s 20 shots. Atlanta United got one back early in the second half courtesy of Julian Gressel. Last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year scored in the 56th minute of the match.
He’s scored twice against Portland in his career, including the 2017 matchup between the two teams in Portland. That goal was also in the second half.
Portland entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference but has managed to thwart three teams that finished higher in the regular season standings.
After edging FC Dallas 2-1 in the knockout stage, Portland Timbers won a penalty shootout to advance past Seattle Sounders and won Leg 2 of the Western Conference finals 3-2 to advance to MLS Cup.
“Mainly what we’ve done this week is go over what Portland has done in the playoffs and what’s allowed them to have success,” Martino said. “They’ve been able to eliminate all higher seeds and done so on the road. … We expect to have the initiative in this game. That’s something that we’ve prepared for, and that’s similar to the first game this season when we played them. We expect them to defend and do what they’ve shown to do well, which is get out quickly on the counter-attack.”
There’s some added intrigue to the matchup in that Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe was traded by Portland in 2017 for General Allocation Money, Targeted Allocation Money and an international roster spot.
Nagbe said there’s not much of a scouting report that he can provide to help his new club pass Portland for a championship on Saturday, but he still hasn’t exactly gotten over the novelty of playing against the club he’s played for since he was a teenager in the academy.
“It’s a different coach, different system, I don’t know how much I can help,” Nagbe said. “My whole adult life pretty much happened (in Portland), so obviously, it will always feel like a home to me.”
The match also is the last for Martino with Atlanta United. He has been linked to the Mexican National Team head coach position.
“I just want to say thank you for Atlanta for letting me participate from the beginning with the birth of this new club,” Martino said. “The final is going to be very important. This is a very competitive league, and it’s a league where everybody can win. You have a final with a five seed versus a two seed, so the regular season is very competitive.”
Atlanta’s advantage, perhaps, lies with its depth. Two players with a combined 40 regular season starts have provided a lift for Atlanta United as subs during the playoffs. Hector “Tito” Villalba, a former designated player, and Ezequiel Barco, one of the club’s three DPs, have logged 77 and 16 minutes off the bench, respectively.
“Our goal is to win the championship,” Villalba said. “Especially in the final, you have to be ready for anything. Whether you’re coming off the bench or playing 90 minutes, you have to be focused because you never know what’s going to happen on the day.”