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3 key battles in MLS Cup Final between Atlanta and Portland

MLS Cup Soccer

File - In this June 24, 2018, file photo, Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (10) has a shot defended by Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala (33) in the second half of an MLS soccer match in Atlanta. Before an expected crowd of more than 70,000, Atlanta United will host the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup championship game Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Brett Davis, File)


Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers meet in the final match of the season. 90 minutes to decide the MLS Cup winner. With just one last game to go, there are plenty of storylines and key matchups that will determine the course those 90 minutes take.

Will Atlanta’s relentless attack prove unstoppable one more time? Or will Portland’s stellar defensive shape nullify the Atlanta firepower?

[ MORE: Full MLS Cup Final preview ]

This matchup is a delicious clash of styles, with Atlanta United actually playing right into the hands of how Portland has progressed this season. The Timbers owned the third-least possession of all MLS teams this season, while Atlanta held the most. This will make for a fascinating 90 minutes to see how the fifth-seeded Timbers can hold off Atlanta and look for goals of their own.

1) Diego Chara and/or David Guzman vs Miguel Almiron

Portland relied on this defensive midfield pairing against Sporting KC in the semifinals, helping keep Kansas City choked off in the danger area outside the top of the box. It’s likely that Giovanni Savarese deploys both together yet again in the finals, but even if only one plays, whoever is on the field will have the responsibility of keeping Miguel Almiron locked down, and force the creative weight on those behind him - like Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe. While both those players are talented - Gressel in particular has come on strong of late - neither is as important to this team as Almiron, and stopping his marauding will be priority number one. This is the most obvious battle that Portland must win if the Timbers are to pull off yet another upset.

2) Michael Parkhurst/Jeff Larentowicz vs Diego Valeri

There is some serious MLS experience among this matchup. With Jeremy Ebobisse coming on strong of late for Portland, Valeri has moved back into a more creative role, but he still remains the Timbers’ biggest goalscoring threat. Portland as a team scored the joint-most headed goals in the league this regular season with 14 as well as ranking third in the league on set-piece goals, so Parkhurst and Larentowicz, alongside Argentinian Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, will need to be mistake-free in the air.

But guarding the aerial threat will hardly be enough to keep Valeri under wraps. His creativity not only opens up teammates, but can also create chances for himself out of seemingly nothing. The experienced Atlanta defense cannot allow Valeri to open space on his own, as the possessional advantage Atlanta will almost certainly enjoy should limit the amount of opportunities Portland can create. Therefore, the Atlanta defense needs to make Valeri earn his chances and not allow them to magically appear out of nothing.

3) Eric Remedi vs. Portland counter

Atlanta succumbed to a 1-1 draw the first time these teams met, as Portland locked Atlanta down at Mercedes-Benz Stadium despite a huge possessional advantage for the hosts. Why? They limited Atlanta’s attack and completed a number of deep key passes from the midfield area on the counter. 23-year-old Eric Remedi wasn’t around for that first meeting in late June, only arriving two weeks later in the summer transfer window. The Argentinian midfielder immediately slotted into the starting lineup and has played every single league minute since his first start on July 29. His presence will be critical if Atlanta is to neutralize the Portland counter, as he will not only be tasked with keeping the speedy Portland forwards at bay, but also not giving away needless fouls that would allow Portland to enjoy set-piece opportunities, which often go hand-in-hand with counters.

BONUS: Jeff Attinella vs. Atlanta’s attack

It goes without saying that if Portland is to play its desired style and let Atlanta control the ball, goalkeeper Jeff Attinella must be on top of his game. The 30-year-old American has been here before, but only as a backup, forced to watch from the bench as Nick Rimando couldn’t lead Real Salt Lake to victory on penalties in 2013. Now with the starting job and a popular cheer from the home fans, “Jeff Jeff Jeff” will need to stand tall to keep Portland in the match.

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