After going winless on their two-game road swing against FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes, the Portland Timbers are returning home to Providence Park tomorrow in need of points. Now sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference, the Timbers will have a chance to push their way back to the top of the pack with a win over expansion side Atlanta United, or to fall down to fifth if the day’s results do not go their way.
Atlanta, however, are no pushovers despite their expansion status. Despite a road-heavy opening to the season, Atlanta are hanging around the red line largely thanks to their rampant attack, having scored nineteen goals in just nine games so far this year.
Those goals come from all across the pitch for Atlanta and the Timbers will need to be wary of a number of different players, but at the heart of Atlanta’s attack are their trio of attacking midfield players: Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron, and Yamil Asad. That trio have combined for eight goals and nine assists and have proven adept at breaking teams down on the break.
With such firepower in their midfield, Atlanta are built almost exclusively around maximizing their effectiveness, looking to cede possession to their opponents before breaking quickly down the pitch with incisive passing and technical finishing. However, this one-dimensional effectiveness has cut both ways for Atlanta this year and when an opponent refuses to play into that game plan the side has looked markedly less effective.
Also hindering Atlanta in recent weeks has been the absence of striker Josef Martinez. Martinez electrified the league in the opening weeks of the season, scoring five goals in three games before going down injured. In his place Atlanta have turned to Kenwyne Jones, a proven veteran with strong hold-up play who none the less does not quite fit in with Atlanta’s approach to the game, Jones is still dangerous, but does not quite feed off the play of Atlanta’s midfield in the same way that Martinez does.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, Martinez has not traveled and once again the side will turn to Jones to lead the line. Atlanta’s pain is the Timbers’ pleasure, however, as the less mobile Jones is certainly more in line with the sort of player that the Timbers’ recently discombobulated back line would like to deal with. This is doubly true given the difficulties that Atlanta’s midfield is sure to pose.
The Timbers, of course, have been missing two key contributors of their own for the last two weeks: Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri. Coming into tomorrow’s match it seems likely that Valeri, at least, will be making his return and giving the Timbers an answer in the attack that they were missing in last week’s match against the Quakes. Nagbe, however, has not been training this week and is doubtful for this weekend.
The return of Valeri to the fold is key for the Timbers in this match as they will need someone to pull the strings on the break and combine with Sebastian Blanco and Fanendo Adi as they look to break down Atlanta. Valeri’s ability to get down the field and create chances was something that the Timbers were sorely lacking against San Jose, putting a creative burden on Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla that just did not fit with their styles of play.
Still, with Nagbe out the Timbers will need a player to step in to the attack and after disappointing performances from the side’s usual fill-ins last week it is more difficult than ever to say who will step in. Mattocks or Asprilla are the most likely candidates, of course, but players like Jack Barmby or Victor Arboleda could potentially see time after bringing a spark that was sorely lacking for much of the match in the loss to San Jose.
Arboleda in particular is an intriguing possibility, as his pure speed will give an defender fits. However, the speed factor could be doubly important in this match as Atlanta’s first choice right back, Greg Garza, is out injured and veteran Mark Bloom will fill in for him. Bloom has proven himself to be an able defender over the last four years with Toronto FC, but he still presents an opportunity for the Timbers to attack, either giving Blanco license to go at him or bringing Arboleda over to the right and putting Bloom under pressure from the young speedster.
Watch it on: ESPN
When: Sunday, April 14th at 1:00 p.m. PT
Where: Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 5-3-2, 4th place in the Western Conference, Lost 3-0 at San Jose Earthquakes
Atlanta United: 3-4-2, 7th place in the Eastern Conference, Lost 3-1 at NYCFC