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Three Questions: Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers

With SB Nation’s Stumptown Footy

MLS: Portland Timbers at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

To get everyone ready for Atlanta United’s matchup against the Portland Timbers, we spoke with Stumptown Footy’s Will Conwell to get his take on their great run of form, the weaknesses they have, and missing two players due to World Cup commitments.

DSS: Portland’s on a 10-match unbeaten streak. What have they done well over that span?

SF: Over the course of their last ten games, the Timbers have posted a 6-0-2 record in MLS play as well as picking up a pair of wins in the U.S. Open Cup over the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. In that time, the Timbers have outscored their opponents 14 to 6, improving from one of the worst defensive records in the Western Conference to one of the best while still getting plenty of scoring from their attacking trio of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Fanendo Adi (or, more recently, Samuel Armenteros).

Getting a little more granular, at their most effective the Timbers are a team that controls the center of the pitch.

Lining up in a 4-3-2-1 -- the Christmas Tree -- the Timbers play a group of defensive midfielders that are effective in covering ground, shutting down passing lanes, and in general making life difficult for any team looking to get into Zone 14, the area at the top of the box out of which the most dangerous attacking moves in the game are born. In most cases, this means shepherding their opponents outside, giving up space on the wings, and allowing the sort of low-percentage crosses that physical center backs like Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante, and Bill Tuiloma can feast on.

The Timbers also concentrate on the center of the pitch when they are going on the attack. While they are a capable possession team when they need to be, the Timbers would much rather welcome on their opposition in order to spring a quick counter attack with their trio of attacking players, often supported by a run out of their defensive midfield. Each of the Timbers’ attacking players are capable scorers, dribblers, and passers, and the group has feasted this year when they are able to go up the gut and put defenses on the back foot.

DSS: Although they’re in great form at the moment, are there any weaknesses that still concern you?

SF: While it has not been long since the Timbers won a match -- they took down the Galaxy in Open Cup play last weekend -- their last two league matches have ended in frustrating draws that featured the side looking tired in a way that we have not seen this season.

The Timbers boast some talented players, but one cannot help but wonder at the age of several of the team’s key pieces. The Diegos, Valeri and Chara, are both 32 and have been pillars of the side since joining the Timbers in 2013 and 2011, respectively. Liam Ridgewell is 33 and has a well established history of injury problems keeping him off the pitch. Nonetheless, he is one of the Timbers most effective defenders when he is actually able to play. Even Sebastian Blanco is 30 in his second year with the team.

If Giovanni Saravese and company can manage the team’s minutes in such a way as to keep everyone healthy and fresh, then the Timbers should continue looking good. Still, the weariness that the side exhibited against the Galaxy in their 1-1 league draw just three weeks ago has to give one pause.

DSS: David Guzman and Andy Polo are both on World Cup duty. How big of an impact do their absences have on the Timbers?

SF: This year was supposed to be David Guzman’s chance to put his stamp on the Timbers. With Darlington Nagbe seeking his fortune elsewhere and Diego Chara advancing in age, Timbers fans were looking to Guzman to take over the center of the pitch and become the sort of pace-dictating holding midfielder that we saw glimpses of last year. Instead, the Timbers looked bad, Guzman got hurt, and Saravese made some big, big changes in the Timbers’ approach to the game.

Now, thirteen games into the season, Guzman’s place with the Timbers is hard to pin down. Other than a six minute substitute appearance just before leaving to join Costa Rica at the World Cup, Guzman has not played since March. In his absence, players like Cristhian Paredes and Andres Flores have stepped into the midfield and helped shape the way the Timbers play, providing energetic presences on the pitch more in the mold of Chara -- who appears to have totally rejected the idea that he should be losing a step -- than in line with Guzman’s more staid, stay-at-home style.

One of the players that has quietly made his mark in the midfield this season is Polo. In many ways, the young Peruvian is having a season that is the polar opposite of Guzman’s.

A young player with appearances for his national team but little else known about him, Polo has had a chance to grow into his role with the Timbers this season and after several anonymous appearances to start the year, he has become a reliable central midfielder who is willing to put in the work on defense but has the speed and confidence to get forward into the attack. Those qualities have made Polo a strong contributor in the Timbers’ 4-3-2-1, and in his absence, the Timbers have at times looked in need of a player who is as competent as Polo in the transition from defense to the attack.