The Story So Far
The Portland Timbers came away with a victory at Providence Park on Wednesday night, led by a Brian Fernandez brace and a goal by Jorge Moreira. While the Timbers conceded two goals to a 10-man Chicago Fire, they kept their heads above water and came out with the 3-2 victory. This puts them over the line and into the seventh and final playoff spot.
The reigning MLS Cup champs, Atlanta United, are coming off a 3-2 victory as well, beating Liga MX side Club America to lift the first-ever Campeones Cup. Three different members of the Five Stripes put the ball in the back of the net on Wednesday night: Josef Martinez, Emerson Hyndman, and Jeff Larentowicz.
This, of course, will be a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup. Can the Timbers exact revenge and continue their march up the Western Conference table, or can the Five Stripes come into Providence Park and steal three points?
What to Watch for
Atlanta United (13-9-3, 42 pts)
Atlanta United boasts the best home record in MLS (at 10-1-3). It’s a different matter on the road, however, with the team posting only a 3-8-0 record, including losing their last six. While the lineup to the right was against NYCFC, their last match was on Wednesday night against the Club America, where they came out in a 4-3-3 and a rotated side, though Josef Martinez, Darlington Nagbe, and a few more all played.
What formation will Frank de Boer run out against Portland? It’s hard to say, though the formation that has been used most by de Boer this season is the 4-2-3-1. He does likes to change it up sometimes, like going three at the back against City. I’d like to think they’ll come out in a 4-2-3-1 and rotate the side. They currently are second in the East and need the win to pull even with the East’s leading Philadelphia Union. (That was weird to type.)
In de Boer’s first year, there have been ups and downs in Atlanta, with some calling for the head of de Boer early on when Atlanta wasn’t doing much winning. But now with the Campeones Cup win, things seem to be looking up for Atlanta. I mean, things couldn’t have been that bad if they’re only three points off the top spot in the East. Either way, look for an aggressive team who likes to control the ball; for the year, they have a 54.2 percent possession. So I’d look for Atlanta to retain possession of the ball for good chunks of time.
Look for them to mainly attack down the middle of the pitch, with Darlington Nagbe directing things from the midfield. He’s come into his own in ATL and is a key weapon the the Five Stripes’ attack. If you can slow down Nagbe, you can slow down the Five Stripes. He has only one goal and two assists this season, but what Nagbe does for Atlanta United doesn’t always show up on the score sheet.
Speaking of the score sheet, lets talk Josef Martinez.
Could he get the night off on Sunday? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Martinez is the offense of this club, currently sitting on 20 goals and two assists. The next closest player(s) are Ezequiel Barco and Julian Gressel, who have four goals each. That’s not a typo: four goals. So you can see how important in can be to shut Martinez down if he’s in the lineup. On paper, it looks pretty simple: Shut down Martinez, and you shut down the Atlanta United.
When attacking down the middle, also look for through-balls to split the center backs. The Timbers back line is going to have to be on their toes all night, especially if Martinez is in the lineup. This is a beatable team; with their road record, they look ripe for the taking, but it’s ever as easy as that.
Aside from the aforementioned Martinez and Nagbe, look out for both Barco and Gressel as well, they can be dangerous and can’t be taken lightly. This is a really solid team from top to bottom, and their is a reason they’re second in the Eastern Conference.
Portland Timbers (11-9-4, 37 points)
The win against the Chicago was tighter than it needed to be, and the Timbers are going to have to come out guns blazing against a tough Atlanta United squad. With eight home matches left, the Timbers can really run it up. It’s still a tough climb in the West, but it’s not impossible by any stretch.
This part of the season is all about keeping players healthy and rotated. One down moment from the Fire match was the injury to Larrys Mabiala. While he’s not officially listed on the injury report (as of this writing), he’s not going to be able to go on Sunday against the Five Stripes. I’d look for Bill Tuiloma to slide in next to Julio Cascante at center back. They’ve played together before, so it should work out just fine.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more rotation from Giovanni Savarese. I think we’ll see Villafana return to the lineup, along with Renzo Zambrano and Jeremy Ebobisse. I’d really like to see Sebastian Blanco get a breather, but not for Atlanta United. I think that Gio waited too long to pull him on Wednesday against the Fire. With the exceptions I just mentioned, I think this will be close to a first-choice 11.
With as much possession as Atlanta United has, the Timbers are going to have to be patient and hit the Five Stripes on the counter. I think the best bet is to absorb some of that ATLUD pressure and wait for the opening. There’s not much that this Atlanta United team is bad at — and the Timbers are going to have to play at the top of their game. This is a bit of the reason I wish he would have rested Blanco and Chara, because they’ve played a large stretch of games in a short amount of time.
At this point in the season, it’s all about managing minutes. Lest I mention that this is another short turn around — the Timbers host the Seattle Sounders on Friday night for a Cascadia matchup — so rotation though these stretch of games is crucial while also trying not to drop any points at home.
Against Chicago, Brian Fernandez recorded his fourth brace in all competitions and his third brace in MLS play this season. That makes 10 goals in MLS, and that leads the Timbers.
Atlanta United have scored at least 2 goals in their last 5 matches (Major League Soccer).
Against the Fire, Tomas Conechny tallied an assist for a second consecutive match. He is the first Timbers player ever to have an assist in consecutive matches as a substitute. I really hope Gio keeps giving the kid more minutes, especially with this tough run matches.
Atlanta United have conceded at least 2 goals in their last 5 away matches (Major League Soccer).
There have been more than 2.5 goals scored in Portland’s last 3 home games (Major League Soccer).