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Timbers vs. Atlanta United Match Preview: Banged up Timbers hit the Benz

What to expect when the Timbers travel to Atlanta for the first time since 2018.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off a disappointing home loss, the Portland Timbers (1-2-0, 3 points) will have to pick themselves off the mat and endure a tough road trip to Mercedes Benz Arena, to face their 2018 MLS Cup opponent Atlanta United (2-0-1, 7 points).

A look at the opposition

After several seasons stuck in the doldrums of mediocrity, Atlanta United looks like they’re starting to figure some stuff out. In his second full season in charge, head coach Gonzalo Pineda is starting to develop an identity for his team, and they’re starting to produce results.

Their most recent result was one of their most complete. On the road in North Carolina, Atlanta smashed Charlotte (and our old friend Bill Tuiloma) to the tune of a 3-0 beatdown. Atlanta’s speed and directness in their attack was absolutely vicious, and they were able to drive right through the heart of Charlotte’s defensive lines like a hot knife through butter.

They were able to do so by getting Thiago Almada into space and letting him cook. The Argentine international, who a few months ago was raising the World Cup trophy in Qatar, is at his most dangerous with the ball at his feet, green grass around him, and speed in his feet.

All of that was on display in Atlanta’s coup de grace third goal last weekend:

That attacking pattern came time and time again last week, and it is sure to come just as frequently against the Timbers.

Containing Almada will be key for Portland, as will their bevy of other attackers. 18-year-old winger Caleb Wiley notched a brace last weekend, and Atlanta’s wingers and fullbacks provide a constant threat from wide areas.

Timbers team news and outlook

Any conversation about Portland’s outlook for this game has gotta start with the availability list — or specifically, the unavailable list:

That’s, at least:

  • A first choice winger (and a Designated Player)
  • A second choice winger
  • A starting attacking midfielder (and a Designated Player)
  • A second choice (but would probably be first choice) central midfielder
  • A third choice central midfielder

A whole lot of bodies are on the shelf for Portland this week. Where that’s going to hit them the hardest is in central midfield, where Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson are the only available options in that position.

That puts Giovanni Savarese in a difficult spot when setting up the team. Players will inevitably have to set in spots that aren’t as familiar to them, and the chief candidate on the roster to do so is Santiago Moreno. Santi may be forced to play centrally, and will likely be looked to to be the attacking fulcrum this afternoon. Moreno hasn’t had a great start to 2023, and he is now likely going to be thrust into a tough spot to ensure Portland’s offense remains potent.

Offensive potency is something that alluded Portland in their last outing against St. Louis. After scoring off a set piece in the third minute, Portland struggled to generate consistent offense for most of the night. It will be an emphasis for the Timbers in this one, but with so many first choice players unavailable it will be a mighty challenge for Portland to correct it all today.

Still, Portland has surprised all of us before. There is a reality in which Portland sits and defends deep, absorbs pressure, and hits out in space, unleashing the likes of Moreno, Juan Mosquera (Portland’s offensive MVP so far this season), and Claudio Bravo in space. Driving in transition and making Atlanta’s wingers scramble could achieve the two-fold effect of finding dangerous spots for Portland, and keeping the five stripes’ attackers at bay.

The odds are stacked against Portland, but in the Savarese era, that’s often when we’ve seen them do their best work.

Projected Starting XIs

Portland (3-5-2)*: Ivacic; McGraw, Mabiala, Zuparic; Mosquera, D. Chara, Williamson, Moreno, Bravo; Nathan, Niezgoda

Atlanta (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lennon, Robinson, Juan José Purata, Gutman; Sejdić, Ibarra; Araújo, Almada, Wiley; Giakoumakis

*This was a tough exercise this week. I have no idea which direction Gio will go (I guessed continuity-ish), so this is just throwing darts in the dark.

Score Prediction

I’m not gonna lie fam: Saturday could be rough. One of the longest road trips of the year, with a banged up squad, to the house of a team in form that hasn’t lost yet? That’s a tough recipe to find success.

I find it hard to see Portland pulling enough of the pieces together to scrap something out of this one. I think a 3-1 loss to Atlanta is the likeliest of outcomes, with Almada opening the scoring and Miles Robinson scoring on a corner. Portland makes things somewhat interesting with Moreno scoring his first goal of the year, but Atlanta shuts that down real quick with Almada scoring his second.

I could be wrong (I have been on most predictions so far!), and Portland could spring a surprise. They’ve done so in these types of situations before. But this early on the season, and with so many missing pieces... I’ll believe it when I see it.