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Two hundred and thirty-eight days ago, 27 teams had visions of lifting the MLS Cup. That dream is long gone for everyone except the Portland Timbers and New York City FC, who play the league’s flagship event on Saturday. (3 p.m. ET, broadcast live on ABC).

For the first time ever, the Pink City is hosting the final, atmospheric Providence Park, the backdrop for the Timbers’ third MLS Cup appearance in seven years. It’s a league’s dream location and a clash that will see either dance the streets of one of its most fervent markets or a long-awaited payoff for a glamorous NYCFC club that has grown from star power. growth potential.

With the final staging, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Caitlin Murray, Dan Hajducky and Austin Lindberg present the MLS Cup, predicting who will win the silverware on Saturday and who will be down in defeat.

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Even before an $ 85 million renovation project extended Providence Park’s capacity to 25,218 heading into the 2019 season, the Timbers had one of the best home atmospheres in Major League Soccer. The historic site had served several purposes since its original construction was completed in 1893, but over time it has become somewhat of a spiritual home for football in the United States.

Even with the modernization that accompanied the expansion, the stadium – tucked away in the Goose Hollow neighborhood – has retained its historic charm. Despite the presence of grass, this is a venue suited to the biggest stage the league has to offer. Despite the gloomy weather expected on Saturday as Portland hosts the MLS Cup for the first time, the mood should be a point of pride for the league.

What a difference a result or four points can make.

If the Timbers had lost to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Finals or finished with fewer points than the NYCFC, the MLS Cup would have been played at Yankee Stadium, and while playing in the biggest media market in the country would have had its advantages, even a sold-out Yankee Stadium would have been an awkward look on television.

It’s not unusual that NYCFC and Portland have been better at home during the regular season, but few teams in the league have had such a big gap between home and away performances as the two remaining standing. . NYCFC had twice as many points at home (34) as away (17), while Portland’s (35/20) split was similar. That at first glance is reason enough to make the Timbers the favorites to win their second MLS Cup, following their first 2-1 victory at Columbus in 2015.

“I’ve heard it was a great atmosphere, but there is nothing more fun than playing in a stadium with a great atmosphere,” said NYCFC coach Ronny Delia. “We have to deal with the noise to play away, but we played against the best team in the league (New England) and we played well. And it was also quite loud there and also in Philadelphia. . Maybe it’s a step up when you talk about noise, but I think we’ve got players through these things a few times. “

Delia said on Wednesday he didn’t pick a starting XI. The only change he confirmed was obvious: After missing the conference final against Philadelphia with a red card, Golden Shoe winner Valentin Castellanos will be back in the lineup. This should certainly provide a spark for the NYCFC which has stagnated for long periods against the Union.

Portland also has reinforcements in attack. Dairon Asprilla missed the conference final due to a red card and Sebastian Blanco was an unused substitute due to injury. It remains to be seen how effective Blanco can be after a hamstring injury, but given that he was available this weekend, it’s reasonable to expect him to have some sort of role. Saturday.

During the regular season, NYCFC and Portland have played with conflicting styles. Only four teams owned the ball with a higher percentage than the Pigeons (52.99%), while no team played more on the scoreboard than Portland, which had the lowest possession percentage in MLS (44, 9%). Still, they eventually got to the same place: NYCFC’s 64.65 xG ranked No.2 in MLS, while Portland’s 56.18 was No.4 – and they both scored 56 goals, which rank only behind New England (65) and Sporting Kansas City (58). – Bonagura

Predictions:

Whatever defensive weaknesses plagued Portland during the regular season, they were corrected in the playoffs, with just one goal conceded in three games. Granted, the Timbers haven’t faced an attack like the NYCFC’s, especially with Castellanos returning to the lineup. But with Blanco and Asprilla back to play at least one part in Saturday’s game, and with Providence Park in full voice, look for the Timbers to win. –Carlisle

NYCFC has already beaten the best regular season team in league history on the road in those playoffs, so winning in Portland is certainly a reasonable result. It’s just unlikely. Portland is just playing on another level at Providence Park and with the support he can expect on Saturday, it wins. – Bonagura

For anyone who has never attended a Timbers game at Providence Park, the simplest description of the atmosphere is the anti-Yankee stadium. Fans, including the prominent Timbers Army, will be atop the NYCFC, and it should be the loudest crowd the Timbers have played in front of since before the pandemic. Also: Since MLS knocked out the neutral host from the MLS Cup venue in 2012, the home side have won everything but two: when the Timbers won at Columbus in 2015 in a weird game, and when the Sounders FC of Seattle won on penalties in Toronto after a scoreless job in 2016. Home advantage in MLS. The Timbers’ defense is a concern and will struggle if Castellanos put on a good game, but coach Giovanni Savarese generally understands that. –Murray

It certainly feels like the stars have aligned for Portland. It is hosting its first final, as it looks like Diego Valeri’s time in Stumptown is drawing to a close. It would be fitting to send the four-time MLS star and one of three players in league history with both 80 goals and 80 assists with another Philip F. Anschutz trophy. Luckily, heart and mind say this is the Timbers to take. – Hajducky

It’s quite remarkable that the NYCFC, whose road form in 2021 was pedestrian at best, traveled to New England and then Philadelphia to knock out the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. What awaits you in Portland, however, will be quite another thing. Saturday’s MLS Cup is shaping up to be the most atmospheric and emotional contest in league history, and if that strong fan support doesn’t get the Timbers into the contest, I don’t know what makes it. will. – Lindberg

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