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By Paul Danzer/Portland Tribune/Early second-half goal makes comeback attempt doubly difficult in MLS Cup final rematch

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Portland Timbers midfielder runs into an assortment of Atlanta United players, including goalkeeper Brad Guzan, during Sunday night's 2-0 home loss at Providence Park.Playing catchup soccer is not the ideal formula for beating Atlanta United.

Try though they did, the Portland Timbers could not find their way Sunday past one of the best, and hottest, teams in MLS.

Atlanta scored from an early corner kick and added a quality finish from Josef Martinez 45 seconds into the second half to beat Portland 2-0.

The match was even in many respects, including chances created, but the Timbers left Providence Park without scoring a goal for the first time this season.

The result vaulted Atlanta to a share of first place in the Eastern Conference while Portland remained seventh in the West.

The Timbers 11-10-4 (37 points) would have jumped to fourth with a win, but are only five points back of second-place Minnesota United with eight of their nine remaining regular-season games at home.

Atlanta is 14-9-3 (45), tied with Philadelphia in the East.

Portland had its opportunities — Atlanta created 15 scoring chances, Portland 14.

Atlanta took the lead in the 14th minute as defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez put home a rebound after Martinez had first crack at a corner kick. Goalkeeper Steve Clark made the initial save, but Pirez was there for the tap-in finish. The goal came on the third of five Atlanta corners in the first 18 minutes.

"We had opportunities. We were playing very well. The only thing is, we need to be a little bit calmer," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. "I think that goal that they scored frustrated us a little bit. We were feeling good about what we were doing. Unfortunately they find a goal on a corner. If we go 1-1, I think the game would have been different."

Things might have played out differently had Portland's Diego Valeri reached a swift cross from Sebastian Blanco at the back post in the game's second minute.

"The ball bounced so quick," Valeri said. "I didn't want to be in an offside position when Seba was advancing the ball, and with the bounce on the turn he went quicker than I thought."

The result also might have turned had Portland's Brian Fernandez not been ruled offside on a tight decision in the 22nd minute. Fernandez put home a wonderful cross from Valeri, but the goal was waved off. The play looked close enough that the goal likely would have stood if ruled good on the field.

Still, Portland was somewhat fortunate to trail only 1-0 at halftime.

Among the near misses for Atlanta in the first half were a couple of late breakaways. First, Bill Tuiloma appeared to foul Piti Martinez in the box as the Portland defender slid in from behind to disrupt a chance. Moments later, Clark came off his line to deny a breakaway chance for Ezequial Barco.

There were a couple of other opportunities inside the Atlanta 18, including a Jeremy Ebobisse header in the 42nd minute that, reminiscent of his one chance in MLS Cup, went right to goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

But Portland's chances took a hit early in the second half as Martinez found tons of space between Portland defenders and turned a perfect ball from Julian Gressel into a classy finish. It was his 21st goal of the season and made Portland's task doubly difficult.

The best chance for Portland after halftime came in the 64th minute, when Julio Cascante struck a sharp header from a corner kick that forced a top-notch reaction save from Guzan.

Six Atlanta players who started the 2018 MLS Cup final 2-0 victory over Portland started Sunday's match: Martinez, Nagbe, Gressel, Jeff Larentowicz, Gonzalez Pirez and Guzan.

Five Timbers who started the title match were in Sunday's starting lineup: Ebobisse (though at a different position), Valeri, Blanco, Diego Chara and Jorge Villafana.

Portland doesn't have much time to reflect on Sunday's missed chances. 

Next for the Timbers is a 7 p.m. Friday visit from the Sounders. It will decide the 2019 Cascadia Cup. Portland will claim the cup with a win or draw, and it's Seattle's if the Sounders win.

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