Cover photo courtesy of Atlanta United FC
The Portland Timbers and Atlanta United meet in a Mother’s Day matchup of two teams coming off bad losses the week before. Portland is returning home after a 3-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes while Atlanta is playing yet another road game (their sixth in seven games) after their 3-1 loss against New York City FC. While Portland will likely be getting some of their star players back, Atlanta will need to regroup and rethink their strategy as they go up against one of the best teams in MLS.
Previewing the Portland Timbers
Courtesy of Portland Timbers
This was the starting lineup for the Portland Timbers last week in their game against San Jose. You will notice that there are two key names missing from this lineup. The Timbers were without their playmakers in Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe last week and it showed. They had few attacking chances and they struggled to build any possession or threat. Nagbe and Valeri are key to Portland’s attack and are expected to return against Atlanta United. These are two players similar to the ones Atlanta has struggled against all season. They are the type that create space for themselves in the midfield with their movement and once they get the ball, they can dribble at defenders and either use their skill to get around them or shoot from distance. Atlanta’s defense has struggled with marking skillful players and will need to find a way to stop Valeri and Nagbe from receiving the ball in space. When this happens, players like Larentowicz will need to close them down quickly and not let them get the chance to go up against the centerbacks.
Two other players that Atlanta will need to look out for are Fanendo Adi and Diego Chara. Chara plays a role similar to that of Carlos Carmona for Atlanta. While he is not a true defensive midfielder as he can get high up the field, he tracks back and does a lot of defensive work. It will be Chara’s job for Portland to limit the space Almiron has in the midfield. Chara is known for being a very physical player and will likely just foul and tackle Almiron when he gets the ball in a dangerous position. Almiron will be faster than Chara and will need to utilize his speed and elusiveness to beat him. If this happens he will be able to go up against a weak Portland backline. Fanendo Adi on the other hand, is a large target striker much like Jozy Altidore for Toronto FC. Adi is the leading goalscorer in TImbers history and Atlanta will need to make sure that he is not allowed to do what he does best which is head the ball and use his physicality. This means that Pirez and Parkhurst will need to match Adi’s strength with good positioning and making sure he does not have room to operate. There is a lot Atlanta will need to look out for with the Portland TImbers and if they have poor defensive shape as they have had in the past couple games, Atlanta could be in for a long game on Sunday.
Previewing Atlanta United
Courtesy of Atlanta United FC
This was Atlanta United’s starting lineup against NYCFC. As predicted, due to Yamil Asad’s suspension, Almiron had to move out to the wing and Gressel moved into Almiron’s usual position. Due to injuries and suspensions, Atlanta’s depth is really being tested. The game against New York showed that Atlanta is struggling to keep up in the midfield and because of that their attack has been struggling. While they have given up six goals in two games and only scored two, the defense should not take all the blame. If Atlanta wants to stick to their strategy of building out of the back, it is the job of the midfielders like Gressel and Carmona to connect the defense to the attack. We have seen how well it can work in the past, but in the two previous games, we have seen what happens when the midfielders struggle to do this. Gressel appears to be regressing from what we saw earlier in the season. His passing is poor and he constantly gets beat with speed while defending. While Carmona had a great goal last week and his defending is good, his passing has been bad. Atlanta cannot keep giving the ball away with bad passes in their own half as they have done in recent weeks, especially against a team with as much attacking talent as the Portland Timbers. It is easy to see how bad passing in the midfield leads to opportunities for the other team. When Atlanta has the ball, the outside backs push high up the field. This makes Pirez and Parkhurst spread out to cover the space left by Garza and Mears. When Atlanta turns the ball over with a bad pass in their own half (as they have done many times in the past two games), the attacking players for the other teams have wide open holes in the defense to run into because two centerbacks are trying to cover the space that is meant to be covered by four defenders.
When Atlanta’s attack and midfield is clicking, it is extremely hard to stop. But when they cannot make good passes, it puts the defense under a ton of pressure and Atlanta does not yet have the players or strategy to combat that. This means that in order to win, the midfield players must have good games. This week, Almiron will go back to his normal position as Asad will likely take his starting place out on the wing. We also now know that Greg Gaza will not make the trip to Portland. This means that either Mikey Ambrose or Mark Bloom will get the start. Other than that, the lineup will probably be the same as last week’s.
As mentioned before, Portland does not have a strong defense. They are lacking speed in the back which is something Atlanta has a lot of. If Atlanta can get the ball to Almiron and Villalba and they are able to run at Portland’s defenders, they should be able to get in on goal for good chances to score. If Kenwyne Jones can hold the ball up when it is passed to him, then distribute down the wings with through balls, Atlanta will have a chance to come away from this game with points.
This game will come down to execution. If Atlanta is able to execute their game plan and utilize their speed in transition, along with maintaining their defensive shape, there is a chance they can win this game. If this does not happen, Portland has plenty of talent that can capitalize on mistakes. If Atlanta can impose their will on the game, they could dominate the game. If not, then we could be in for another rough one. Score prediction: 2-2 tie.