Well the World Cup is over, so it’s time to get back to business with MLS. Upon further research, I have found that the above statement is incorrect, MLS will play despite there still being two weeks left in the tournament. This will allow the league to play six playoff games in 20 weeks once the post season starts. In any case, Atlanta United will be back from the break that they played an Open Cup game in. Speaking of that game, the team yet again lost at home, but this time there wasn’t refereeing, virtual or otherwise, to blame.
Atlanta United really got the tactics wrong against Chicago and the personnel on the field might not have been the right choice either. It ended up costing the team and Atlanta is once again out of the US Open Cup. The plus side is that the team will be well rested and can focus on the league. For readers of this blog it also means at least one less Prekrap you have to read.
Anyway, onto the Prekrap...
Oh, yeah, it’s a winning streak, but you’ve probably never heard of it
The Portland Insufferable Hipsters will make their first trip to Atlanta unbeaten in their last eight games. Portland hasn’t lost since April and has really recovered from the poor start they had at the beginning of the season. It really looked like they’d be along with the Colorado Rapids and DC United as the worst teams in the league as they pedaled their fixed gear bicycle up a hill while explaining that it’s the purest way to ride a bike. But since failing to win in their first five games, they’ve managed to turn it around this year.
So what happened with Portland, how’d they go from a team that seemed to be careening downhill on a fixie that they can’t stop because the chain broke and breaks and helmets are for cagers? Well for one thing they got Diego Chara back. The Timbers midfielder is possibly the most important player on the team as his absence in the first five matches of the season demonstrates. In fact, in the last 17 games that Chara hasn’t appeared in, Portland is 0-11-6 according to Sam Stejskal of MLSSoccer.com.
Well he’s absolutely playing and will try to be the destroyer that he is and disrupt the Atlanta attack with timely tackles, good positioning, and the occasional bit of physicality that occurs outside of the view of the referee that marks a truly great no. 6.
Chara is also excellent at diving.
Aside from Chara, Portland has gone back to keeping things simple. One thing that Caleb Porter suffered was trying to get his team to play like it was Barcelona in 2009 for 90 minutes and pass teams to death. It usually worked for about 75 minutes, but outside of a hot streak when the defense learned how to stop teams for scoring for a few games at the end of 2016, it wasn’t a good strategy.
Giovanni Savarese seems to have decided focus on keeping the defense cohesive and then playing fast to Sebastian Blanco or Diego Valeri to create chances. In general, the Timbers deploy a tree shaped formation in a 4-3-2-1 with either Fanendo “this is the year he breaks out” Adi or journeyman Samuel Armenteros up top. The rotation at striker also means that the team has a good option off the bench if they need a late goal.
It’s going down, I’m yelling timber - You better SHOOT, you better FINISH YOUR CHANCES
All of that was a really nice way of saying that Portland is going to probably bunker and counter. Midweek the Chicago Fire came to town and beat an Atlanta “B” team by bunkering and not having to face any kind of threat from the left side of that Atlanta attack. Luckily, there aren’t roster requirements for the number of American players that have to be on the field for this game and the Five Stripes can get back to not finishing the chances that they create with their best 11.
Portland is a more defensively solid team than last year, but Atlanta should be able to break through their defense. Darlington Nagbe will be looking to show that his time in Portland, when he was deployed as a winger by soccer genius Caleb Porter, might not have been the best representation of his skills. With Nagbe completing 90% of his passes in the final third, Atlanta should be able to find space for its goal scorers behind the Timbers’ backline.
This might be a good match to let Tito Villalba have a start, his ability to run at defenders and send blistering shots at Minnesota United cast off Jeff Attinella’s goal might be a better option against a team that sits back and defends. Julian Gressel’s cutbacks are a sight to behold and his connection with Josef Martinez has been incredible this season, but he isn’t going to unlock the Portland defense. If Atlanta ends up holding a lot of possession, Gressel’s crossing ability won’t be as much of a threat as Tito’s technical prowess.
Defensively, Atlanta will need to be disciplined against Portland. Diego Valeri is one of the best attackers in MLS and the reigning league MVP will be a dangerous outlet on the counter for the Timbers. With him lining up on the right opposite a second choice left back in a 4-3-3 or Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez at attacking left center back, whoever ends up being responsible for his part of the field will need to know where he is when venturing forward.