As the clock ticks towards kickoff, I’m sure that Gio and the Timbers are doing their homework on Atlanta United. With a draw during the regular season, both teams are at different places now than they were then. I think that the Timbers were the ones to change more than this ATLUD squad - but still different teams.
Atlanta United lost the Supporters Shield on Decision Day, the Timbers locked up the fifth seed and set a date for Dallas, Texas. Two vastly different paths to end up at the same point in the road where the MLS Cup runs through Mercedes Benz stadium. I don’t think it matters to the Timbers were the final is, as long as they are in it.
One of Gio’s mantras this whole season has been: play every match like a final. And it has seemed to work. They go the full 90 leaving everything out on the pitch, be it win, lose or draw. There are now 90 minutes left in the season, all for the glory and bringing that damn cup back to where it belongs - Soccer City, U.S.A.
This match doesn’t lack superstars that’s for sure, Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Julian Gressel, Eric Remedi and more. Stacked doesn’t even begin to explain it. The Timbers have Diegos Valeri and Chara, Sebastian Blanco and their own supporting cast.
Contain Josef Martinez
You can’t stop Martinez you can only hope to contain him.
The reigning MLS MVP likes to run off the shoulder of the center-backs, meaning that Liam Ridgewell and and Larrys Mabiala are going to have a big job ahead of them in the form keeping Martinez from running wild Saturday night. This is the guy that’s scored 31 goals in 34 matches this season. He finds spaces, and next thing you know he’s in on goal with a one on one with the keeper. You cannot look away from this guy for even a millisecond.
With him playing off the shoulder of the center-backs it’s not hard to run an offside trap. He’s very prone to being offside a lot, so if Ridgwell sees him edging close - take that step or two forward that puts him offside. The Timbers need to be aware of this and put it to good use. If Gio doesn’t have the team come out in a 4-2-3-1 I’d be highly surprised, but he’s done that before - though this is for all the marbles and that formation got the Timbers to where they are right now. Someone is going to have to put Martinez in their pocket for the night, who that falls to, I have no clue.
Bottom line is this: Josef Martinez must not score. That should be one of the mantras of the defense, Mr. 31-goals needs to be kept away from the net and Jeff Attinella.
One of the things that Sporting Kansas City did effectively in that second leg was to stretch out the Timbers offense, not allowing them the middle of the pitch. All they had to do is drag one person out of shape and space would open up. One of the ways they did this was to temp Zarek Valentin to step to an attacker higher up the pitch, leaving space in behind where Valentin was or pulling Polo with his mark away from the wing which let Johnny Russell work his match for SKC>
I don’t have to tell you that Atlanta thrives in open spaces, even tiny gaps. They’ve been known to make something out of nothing, a lot. Tata Martino ran five at the back against the Red Bulls. It’s possible he could do it again, or three at the back - though according to whoscored.com Tata has used 3 in the back 11 times this season, the 4-2-3-1 was used a total of 12 times. So it could be a toss up on what we see from Tata on Saturday.
If I was a betting man, I’d say he goes with a 4-3-2-1.
Atlanta will try this and the Timbers cannot get suckered into it. They need to be patient and disciplined with and without the ball. This is probably the one area that I worry the most about, not nightmares inducing but you can’t give Atlanta United acres of space and not expect to be punished.
Diego Valeri & Sebastian Blanco
This part should come to no surprise to anyone who even remotely follows the Timbers. These two are the straws that stir the Portland Timbers drink, and because of this they’re most likely going to draw a few fouls among other things Saturday night; I suspect they’ll have some bruises come the end of the match. Both of these gentleman had a fantastic night against Sporting Kansas City.
In case you needed a reminder:
These guys have been friends from childhood (playing for the same club team since youth) and wouldn’t it be nice to for them to share an MLS Cup? It should be all about getting the ball to either of these two gentleman as much as Timbers can. While it's always a team effort, these two take it to a different level.
Just like the Timbers are going to have to find an answer to Josef Martinez and his partner in crime Miguel Almiron, Atlanta United are going to have to find an answer to our dynamic duo. The key for the Timbers, of course, will be getting the ball to them so they can find space. This where guys like Jeremy Ebobisse, Andy Polo, and company come into play.
Ebo’s runs off the ball pulling a defender or two wide will help Valeri get into the tight spaces to make something happen.
Franco Escobar, Atlanta’s right-back, is going to have his hands full with Sebastian Blanco. As we know, and SKC found out, don’t give him both time and space, because he will punish you for it. He’s going to drive the defense nuts with his dribbling ability both inside and outside the box - he’s been known to break an ankle or two.
What are your keys to the match? Sound off in the comments!