Greg Vanney knows a thing or two about the MLS Cup.
As a defender for the LA Galaxy, Vanney started in a trio of MLS Cup finals during his playing career (including in the inaugural MLS championship game in 1996), coming out on the losing end all three times.
As coach, his Toronto FC side lost to the Seattle Sounders in a shootout in the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field, before the Reds exacted revenge on Seattle in the following year’s final in their home stadium.
So, who better to ask about the 2018 MLS Cup between Atlanta United and Portland Timbers, which goes Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Georgia?
After finishing second in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, Atlanta has cruised through the playoffs, posting convincing two-legged wins over New York City FC and the New Yok Red Bulls to book its spot in the MLS Cup.
Portland finished fifth in the Western Conference, which meant it didn’t have a first-round bye like Atlanta. Instead, the Timbers had to overcome FC Dallas on the road, and then beat Seattle and Sporting Kansas City in the next two rounds, with the decisive match in both two-legged series contested away from home.
The Timbers should have their hands full against an offensively-potent Atlanta side that led MLS with 70 goals during the regular season. Atlanta also boasts the league’s MVP in Josef Martinez, who scored 31 goals in 34 games this season, breaking the MLS record of 27 shared by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Like Martinez, Atlanta midfielder Miguel Almiron was named to the year-end MLS Best XI team after scoring 12 goals and adding 14 assists.
“Atlanta has a lot of different ways they can hurt you; they can hurt you transition and with all the quality they have, especially in the attacking third, because they have guys who can make plays quickly,” Vanney warned.
TFC’s coach believes the key for Portland on Saturday will be to stay compact and not lose its shape.
“That’s Portland’s game. They’re a team built on not giving things up, and being difficult to break down and play against, and they can hurt you on the counter. Atlanta has more offensive weapons, but you can never count out a team that plays like Portland. They don’t necessarily want to have the ball for any extended period of time, they don’t need to have the ball, but they can still find ways to win,” Vanney explained.
Portland also has to stay disciplined in not chasing Atlanta when it’s in possession.
“When teams get stretched out by Atlanta is when the speed of Almiron and the directness of Martinez can really hurt you. If Portland concedes possession a bit, and invites them into their half of the field, Atlanta will find some difficulty in terms of doing the things they like to do. They can still score, but it doesn’t play into their strengths, which is to open you up by exploiting spaces and building up some speed,” Vanney offered.
“Portland will be fine with Atlanta having the ball, but Atlanta would want Portland to come out and chase them round. I don’t think Portland will do that. They’ll be very pragmatic and sit tight, and wait for them in their half of the field, press them when they can and hit on the counter attack.”
Considering the vastly different tactical approaches of these two clubs, Vanney is expecting a bit of a cat-and-mouse game on Saturday. He also believes the one-on-one battle between the two midfield lynchpins – Almiron for Atlanta and Portland’s Diego Chara – could decide which team emerges victorious.
“Almiron is so dangerous in that midfield space, and Chara is one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS. He’s got some quickness, a turn of speed and a physicality that can make it difficult for Almiron. If Portland can control Almiron, then they’re on the beginning stages of controlling Atlanta’s ability to hurt them,” Vaney said.
Of course, home field will be a huge advantage for Atlanta, as a crowd of over 70,000 fans are expected to be in attendance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The key for Portland will be to try to take the crowd out of it with its style of play.
“Getting through the first 15-20 minutes will be important for Portland, as they’ll be a lot of emotion and energy in the building. A part of their game plan for will be to suck that energy out by slowing the game down, and forcing Atlanta’s possession to be long and monotonous, which doesn’t necessarily bring the crowd out into the game,” Vanney stated.
Saturday evening is bound to be a somewhat weird experience for Vanney.
For the first time in three years, TFC’s coach won’t be directly involved in the MLS Cup, as he’s been demoted from participant to spectator after the Reds failed to qualify for the 2018 MLS playoffs. Instead of nervously pacing the touchline as the action unfolds directly in front of him, Vanney will watch this year’s final between Atlanta and Portland.
“It’s disappointing, for sure. It’s just a reminder of the challenges that existed this season, and it’s a reminder that that’s the goal, a reminder of the intensity required, and what we have to do to refocus and get back there next year,” Vanney said.