Not for the first time over the last two years, all eyes will be drawn to Atlanta United's Mercedes-Benz Stadium this weekend. But it will be a little more special this time around.
The Five Stripes face the Portland Timbers for the title of MLS Cup champions on Saturday in a showpiece which, thanks to the Georgian franchise's higher seeding, will take place at their home.
The occasion serves not only as Atlanta's first chance to win a major trophy but also as an opportunity to send off departing inaugural head coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino in the best way possible. The former Barcelona and Argentina boss is leaving the club after two years to reportedly take charge of the Mexico national team.
For the Timbers, a second MLS Cup triumph is within reach in Giovanni Savarese's first season as head coach after a mammoth postseason charge. In 2015, Portland became the first away team to win the trophy since the league moved the final from a neutral venue to the home of the higher-ranked finalist.
Who: Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers
When: Saturday, Dec. 8 (8 p.m. ET)
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
TV: Fox, UniMas (U.S.); TSN 1, 3, and 5, TVAS (Canada)
Martino's departure from Atlanta has already been confirmed and MLS Cup glory would be a fitting parting reward for the identity he has given the club in its first two years of play. Meanwhile, it seems the boss will be followed out the door by Miguel Almiron, who has long looked destined for a Premier League move and has been strongly linked with Newcastle United.
Distinctly South American flavor
Aside from the Argentinian Martino and Venezuelan Savarese in the coaching dugouts, Atlanta's southern continent influence has been a well-documented and key source of their success. 2018 MVP Josef Martinez (Venezuela), Almiron, Hector Villalba (Paraguay), Franco Escobar, Ezequiel Barco, Eric Remedi, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (Argentina) have all played important roles under Martino. Meanwhile, the Timbers' Argentinian Designated Player pairing of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco has been integral to the team's progress. That duo features just two of a plethora of South Americans on the Oregon franchise's roster.
The winner of the MLS Cup automatically qualifies for next season's CONCACAF Champions League. But it's not quite so simple this year. While Portland depends on victory Saturday to enter the continental competition for the first time since 2016, Atlanta has already booked its spot by virtue of its regular-season performance. That means the New York Red Bulls will be hoping Atlanta wins out on the day and inadvertently secures a spot for its Eastern Conference final nemesis in the process.
Reading too much into Atlanta's 1-0 defeat at the Red Bulls would perhaps be unwise given the Five Stripes were sitting on a 3-0 first-leg lead. Prior to that, they had beaten New York City FC 4-1 on aggregate in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
For the Timbers, the path has been more arduous: a Valeri-inspired win at FC Dallas in the Western knockout round was followed by a 210-minute, shootout-decided marathon against Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders. A 3-2 win at Sporting Kansas City booked Portland's final spot.
Atlanta: Guzan; Garza, Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez, Larentowicz, Escobar; Gressel, Remedi, Nagbe; Almiron; Martinez
Portland: Attinella; Villafaña, Mabiala, Ridgewell, Valentin; Guzman, Chara; Blanco, Valeri, Polo; Ebobisse
Frighteningly for the Timbers, these XIs - generally the respective managers' preferred teams throughout the postseason, when possible - would leave a veritable pair of potential game-winners in Villalba and Barco on the bench for Atlanta.
The home support at Mercedes-Benz will be cacophonous, making winning away a far more difficult proposition for the Timbers than it was in 2015. Adding that factor to Atlanta's quality and the desire to send off Martino in the best way possible, this will be a relatively routine home win.
Atlanta United 3, Portland Timbers 1