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Atlanta United at Portland Timbers: What to watch for

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Atlanta needs to step up

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Last Sunday showed a side of Atlanta United that hadn’t seen the light of day until that cool May afternoon in Yankee Stadium: a bad side. The much touted seeds of versatility that were planted in the offseason failed to bear fruit as Julian Gressel was unable, most troublingly once again, to handle his role as a center attacking midfielder while Miguel Almiron was starved for service on the left wing. While Middlesbrough has been relegated so hard that Brad Guzan is being sent to MLS after getting nutmegged three times, keeper Alec Kann had a difficult game with questionable positioning and poor distribution out of the back.

Adding to the problems were the substitutions by Tata Martino who subbed his center attacking midfielder before the 60th minute for a defensive mid when he took out Gressel for Chris McCann, which had the effect of using one substitution, and then later took out defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz for attacker Brandon Vazquez, which had the effect of using his second substitution. If there is one positive to draw from the game it’s that Martino recognized that there were no positives to draw from the game and will try to coach the team to play better this week as the team travels west to play the Portland Timbers in yet another baseball stadium.

Speaking of this week, here’s what to watch for:

The Portland defense

Last year the Portland Timbers defense was terrible. The team let in late goals game after game and manager Caleb Porter displayed his tactical acumen by essentially changing nothing the entire season to compensate for it. Their struggles led to the team missing the playoffs in the season after they won MLS Cup. Portland did bring in defender Vytas Andriuskevicius late last season and before this year added by subtraction with the departure of Jermaine Taylor and retirement of Nat Borchers who ironically turned into a tree as last season grew longer.

The Timbers didn’t do a lot to stabilize the backline but did bring in high schooler Marco Farfan as a backup left back and transferred in defensive midfielder David Guzman in the off season. The team also decided to stick with mighty New Zealand National Team keeper Jake Gleeson between the sticks and brought in Jeff Attinella to back him up. The cumulative effect of these moves was to upgrade the defense from terrible to mediocre.

In fact, the Timbers have improved their defense so much that they allowed the mighty offensive juggernaut of the San Jose Earthquakes to score three goals on them last weekend. All of that sounds promising for Atlanta but the Five Stripes will need to find a way to implement their style of play in order to get past even what is a weak defense.

Can Atlanta implement any of their philosophy?

There has been a lot written and a lot said about the playing style of Tata Martino and Atlanta United. The idea that Martino has as coach isn’t something that should be unfamiliar to soccer fans in recent years: gegenpressing. The basic idea is that the team doesn’t need the ball and in place of possession every player on the field tirelessly puts pressure on the opponent to force turnovers high up the field so that the team can break on transition to create chances close to the goal.

Aside from the match against 10 man Chicago, Montreal, and a clueless Minnesota United team, the style has looked less like what Jurgen Klopp calls ‘heavy metal football’ and more like a disjointed jazz ensemble with missed beats, off rhythm play, and awful finishing. Even in what was one of the more memorable performances of the year against Toronto, the press was effectively broken by the Reds and Atlanta retreated into a shell to absorb pressure and try to hit long balls over the top to speedy forward Tito Villalba who converted his only chances on the night. That result was favorable for Atlanta, but the overall performance was lacking.

Even in the victory against RSL, the press was ineffective for the whole game, the team couldn’t maintain possession after their 25 minute early dominance, and won due to howlers by keeper Nick Rimando. In no way should a team that has been playing together for just more than three months throw the playing style they are trying to establish in the garbage but at some point the team needs to show more consistency.

With the Timbers’ defensive issues this should be a game that Atlanta can reassert an identity that went missing in the past few games. Caleb Porter is one of the most tactically inflexible managers in MLS and spent all of last year not making defensive changes or early substitutions when his teams needed an adjustment. Last week showed how he tried to implement his style of play even when missing key playmaker Diego Valeri and the much hyped, if also maddeningly inconsistent, Darlington Nagbe. Valeri may be back this weekend but Atlanta can still press and make it difficult to play out of the back and if they can manage that should cause problems for the Portland defense.

Atlanta United’s lineup

So far the times that Atlanta has played with Julian Gressel as a no. 10 have not worked out very well. He was subbed before the hour mark in the last game and Kenwyne Jones went missing in the Bronx. Time and again Gressel has shown that he doesn’t have what it takes to start as an attacking midfielder and has had his best showings in a box to box role. Jones has scored goals but the team doesn’t play the same with him on the field as it does with either Martinez or Villalba up top and tends to lob hopeful crosses into the box hoping they find his forehead rather than trying to breakdown defenses. With Jones starting at forward, Atlanta United has gone 1-3-0.

With Josef Martinez presumably out again coach Martino could be looking for an alternative at striker. That may mean seeing Tito Villalba back up top, but when Tata has played that lineup Gressel has started centrally. Atlanta are coming into this match as pretty significant underdogs according to the betting lines. Not that the team should give up but trying something new before Josef Martinez comes back should be an option for Tata. Brandon Vazquez maybe young and unproven but his young legs should have no issue pressing for more than 25 minutes to force turnovers deep when Portland tries to build out of the back. In addition, he proved against RSL that he can get behind an inept defense and past a second rate keeper.

The defense was another issue last week with the entire team putting in a poor effort on the way to getting pecked to death by NYCFC. Captain Michael Parkhurst got beat by David Villa last week and Greg Garza let Rodney Wallace score on the second and effectively match sealing goal. Martino will have to replace Garza but he could also try a new center back pairing by starting Anton Walkes, Miles Robinson, or Jeff Larentowicz in place of either Parkhurst or Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Whatever direction he chooses to go in, the defense must not have the kind of basic lapses that it did in the past two weeks. If it does the Portland front three of Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi, and Sebastian Blanco will make the early success of United feel like a long lost dream.