Today, though, yields an important opportunity for both teams. For Atlanta, it’s a chance to take advantage of a slip-up by the Philadelphia Union against the Chicago Fire and regain the edge in the Eastern Conference. For Portland, who are level on points for the final playoff spot in the West with FC Dallas (who drew the Montreal Impact on Saturday), they can take further advantage of its 3 matches in hand and put further distance between themselves and the red line.
Will Conwell writes for SB Nation’s Timbers blog, Stumptown Footy, and told us what to expect as Atlanta and Portland square off at a newly-refurbished Providence Park in a rematch of last season’s MLS Cup.
1. Portland has been able to grab some points and string together a series of results, and also have three matches in hand over FC Dallas and are level on points for the 7th spot in the West - while holding the tiebreaker in wins. That being said, what is the overall state of the Timbers right now from a tactical standpoint, and how can it truly grab hold of that playoff spot?
The Timbers currently are at a tactical tipping point. The team have shown that they can get out and run at their opponents on the break, taking the game to any team willing to risk leaving their bunker and venturing forward down the pitch. Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Brian Fernandez live for goals that go the length of the pitch in three touches.
Of course, when the Timbers can’t get in behind their opponents there have been...issues. Take, for example, Wednesday’s’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Fire. In the first half of the match, the Fire came to play their game: open, possessing the ball, looking to attack. While they attempted to do that the Timbers took them apart, going up 2-0 and looking good for more even before the Fire went down a man in the 30th minute. After the red card and even more so after a chance to reorganize at the half, however, the Fire consolidated, dropped back, and suddenly were much harder for the Timbers to pick apart. Similarly, it is no mistake that after the Fire scored their first goal, pulled back within one, and were tempted to push for a second, the Timbers were able to get out on the break and score their third goal of the night. So, as the season winds down and the Timbers continue their long, absurd home stretch, they will certainly run into more teams looking to bunker down and prevent them from doing what they do best. If the Timbers can adjust their style and find a way to break those teams down then a solid playoff seed is theirs for the taking. If they can’t, it will be a whole lot harder to make a run through the playoffs as a lower seed than it was in years past.
2. To tie into the first question, this core of Brian Fernandez, Jeremy Ebobisse, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco has been potent for the Timbers. Who are some other players Atlanta need to be keeping an eye on during Sunday’s match?
The Timbers’ attacking group has provided plenty of flash this season, making the Timbers the fourth highest scoring team in the Western Conference despite their (again) absurd road trip to start the season. Valeri and Blanco are known quantities at this point, Ebobisse is still growing into the changing role that Giovanni Saravese is asking him to play but is still managing to score goals as he does so, and even when Fernandez does something absolutely stunning it should no longer surprise. Looking elsewhere on the pitch, the Timbers have found contributions from throughout their roster, but no one player has stood out over the course of the 2019 season like right back Jorge Moreira. Brought in from River Plater over the winter, Moreira had a definite settling in period with the Timbers. Complicit in the goals given up during several of the Timbers’ early losses, it was initially easy to forget that Moreira was the first choice right back for one of the top teams in the southern hemisphere. As the season has progressed, however, Moreira has come into his own as an attacking force down the right flank, allowing Blanco or Valeri to create consistent overloads when he flies forward. As much as he enables the Timbers’ playmakers, Moreira has also managed to get himself on the scoresheet in 2019, notching two goals and four assists in his 17 games played, including a goal and assist against the Fire on Wednesday.
Other players to keep an eye on include the midfield duo of Diego Chara and whoever-is-next-to-Diego-Chara (Cristhian Paredes and Renzo Zambrano have both been strong in the next-to-Chara role), occasional starter on the wing Marvin Loria, who has scored two absolute bangers in his ten appearances this year and seems to be growing into a spot with the first team, and keeper Steve Clark, who has claimed the starting spot from Jeff Attinella and has only allowed 12 goals in his 14 games played this season.
3. Like Atlanta in 2017 and D.C. United in 2018, the revamped Providence Park equals a lengthy homestand for the Timbers. For those who are making the trip up, what are some differences the new stadium presents that weren’t featured prior to the renovation?
The biggest difference between 2018 Providence Park and 2019 Providence Park is clear as soon as you get within eyesight of the stadium, obvious as you approach it, and inescapable once you are inside: the new East-side stand. Where Providence Park was previously open to the city, the new stand now dominates the view. Providence Park, set down into the earth as it is, has always given the impression of an amphitheater, focused down on the pitch at its center. Now the impression that it gives is more like that of a colosseum: looming, enclosed, and inescapable. No matter where you are in the stadium, the new East side roof is in the periphery of your vision. This is, to be clear, a good thing.
Of course, there are plenty of other quality of life improvements to the stadium. A redone concourse, phone chargers, and new taps are all welcome additions.