That first MLS Cup appearance couldn't have gone much better. In 2015, the Timbers went to Columbus, led for more than 89 minutes after Diego Valeri's opening goal, and won their first league title ever.
This might be a tougher task. Atlanta United has taken MLS by storm after debuting just last year, pouring in goals and stacking up attendance records. Do the Timbers have one more upset in them? We're one day away from finding out (TV on FOX, 5:00 p.m.).
Atlanta United and the Timbers have only met twice before, once in Portland last year, and once in Atlanta this June. Both games finished 1-1; second year German winger Julien Gressel scoring both contests for the Five Stripes, Liam Ridgewell scoring last year and Larrys Mabiala this year for Portland.
The big point of connection between the two teams, however, is one player: Darlington Nagbe, who spent the first seven years of his career in Portland before asking for a trade and being shipped to Atlanta a year ago this month.
Nagbe has had an understated season, failing to score a goal for the first time in his MLS career and registering just three assists. But he's contributed plenty as a connector and tempo-setter in midfield, and, predictably, seemed to enjoy playing second fiddle to the likes of Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.
The one serious blip was when he suffered an adductor injury in his first ever game against the Timbers in June and missed ten games. Since returning to the lineup in mid-September, he's missed just one start.
Some miscellaneous notes: Atlanta will be in their red-and-black stripes, meaning that the Timbers will be wearing all white. The roof at Mercedes Benz Stadium will likely be closed, with a winter storm — named Diego — descending on the region.
The omens, you'd have to admit, aren't so bad. Either way, for a club that made just one league final in its first four decades of existence, this is pretty special. The Timbers Army sold out its ticket allotment for the game in four minutes, and, just as they did in Columbus, they'll represent the city with aplomb.
Atlanta has been a no-frills counter attacking team during the playoffs, playing with a back five, staying compact in the middle of the field, and letting Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez tear through defenses in the open field.
Thus far, it's been extremely effective. Atlanta outscored NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls 7-1 in their first three postseason games before dropping the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final eight days ago 1-0 in Harrison and comfortably advancing 3-1 on aggregate.
In this game, however, Atlanta is going to have to do plenty of work with the ball. The Timbers, as they've done on the road almost all year, will happily sit back, cede possession, and look for their own opportunities on the counter.
It's a style that Portland is eminently comfortable with, and one that none of the three teams they've ousted on their playoff run thus far have been able to fully contain over 90 minutes.
At the same time, the Timbers will need to be careful. If they're as bad as they were in the first half of the second leg of the Western Conference Final, Atlanta won't let them hang around like Kansas City did. It's imperative that the Timbers find moments to break pressure and get out of their half early on.
That means that Jeremy Ebobisse will have to be strong against a trio of very skillful center backs. On the other side of the ball, it means that the Timbers will have to do a better job of protecting their right back, whoever it is.
Alan Kelly will be the center referee. He calls very few fouls, especially early in games, which is something that both teams should be aware of heading into Saturday. Kelly was also the referee MLS Cup 2016 in Toronto, which ended in a penalty shootout victory for the Seattle Sounders.
1 - Guzan
4 - Garza
5 - Gonzalez Pirez
3 - Parkhurst (C)
18 - Larentowicz
2 - Escobar
11 - Remedi
6 - Nagbe
24 - Gressel
10 - Almiron
7 - Martinez
— This will likely start as a 5-2-3, but it can easily morph into a 4-3-3 with Larentowicz pushing into midfield. Either way, Almiron will have free reign to find the game.
— Parkhurst, who has lost four MLS Cups, including the one against the Timbers in 2015, picked up an injury late in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final. He's expected to be ready, but it'll be worth watching his movement early.
— If they start in the 5-2-3, Atlanta is going to have some serious pop off the bench: Tito Villalba, Ezequiel Barco, and free kick specialist Kevin Kratz.
1 - Attinella
4 - Villafaña
24 - Ridgewell
33 - Mabiala
16 - Valentin
20 - Guzman
21 - Chara
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
11 - Polo
17 - Ebobisse
— When Mabiala was carted out of the first leg of the Western Conference Final, it looked like his season was almost certainly over. Instead, after sitting out last week's second leg, he's returned to training and is expected to start on Saturday.
— Assuming that Savarese sticks with the 4-2-3-1, the only big personnel question is at right back. Zarek Valentin has been the primary starter throughout the playoffs, but he struggled badly and was subbed out of the second leg against Sporting.
— The other option is Alvas Powell, who was strong in the Timbers' draw against Atlanta in June. He's . Whichever player starts is likely going to face a ton of pressure. Teams don't want to attack Villafaña on the left, and Atlanta will like their chances to get penetration on the right with Greg Garza getting into the attack.
— The bench will likely be comprised of Steve Clark, Powell or Valentin, Bill Tuiloma, Andres Flores, Lawrence Olum, Dairon Asprilla, and Lucas Melano. We'll likely see the latter two players, both of whom played in the 2015 final.
It feels like a long time ago now, but that June draw was a good blueprint for the Timbers. They were outplayed, but limited Atlanta to just a handful of high quality looks, got a little bit of luck, and took advantage of their size advantage on a set piece. If they can do that again, they'll have every chance to win.
Atlanta is the heavy favorite, and for good reason. They have been a sensation in their first two years in the league, and with Tata Martino managing his last game on Saturday, a championship victory in front of more than 70,000 fans in that colossus of an NFL stadium feels like the proper outcome.
You can see why Arthur Blank has already started talking about a parade. And yet... after watching Portland rope-a-dope their way to victories in Dallas, Seattle, and Kansas City, do you want to be the one to write these Timbers off? They're playing with nothing to lose. And they're going to win 2-1.