Atlanta United are coming off a historic midweek trophy raise of their first international trophy, but there’s no time to celebrate with another huge challenge coming this weekend. It’s a rematch of the 2018 MLS Cup Final, except this time away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as the Five Stripes travel to the West Coast to face the Portland Timbers at Providence Park for the second time ever. With both teams fighting for postseason positions as we enter the final stretch of the season, this will be a hotly-contested match you won’t want to miss.
It all kicks off at 10:00 p.m. EST Sunday on FS1. Click here for all the ways to tune in.
Atlanta United (13-9-3)
There is no hotter team in MLS right now than Atlanta United, and after becoming the first MLS team to beat Liga MX competition in the Campeones Cup midweek, they are riding high. But they’ve drawn both times they’ve played Portland in regular season play, and with a West Coast road trip coming this weekend, it’s yet another tough challenge as they look to keep pace with the top of the Eastern Conference.
One big part of that surge is yet another record-setting streak from striker Josef Martinez. His stats are historic however you slice them, but his 10-match scoring streak is the best ever in the history of MLS, and his 15 goals in that time are six more than any other player in the league in that time. But scoring is a team game, and his goalscoring pace is certainly helped by the play of the players around him like Pity Martínez, who was electric against Club América as he continues to grow into the team more and more every week. With Ezequiel Barco only playing a few minutes on Wednesday, look out for an energetic start from him. And Julian Gressel will be a constant threat on the wing, while hoping to add to his one goal against Portland at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the regular season last year.
The offense is hot but a team can’t win without a great defense –– and there’s a reason Atlanta United has the second-best defense in the league in goals conceded. Miles Robinson continues to play at a Defender of the Year level, with his signature lockdown defense paired by a growing ability going forward. Leandro González Pirez continues to be one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league, and Florentin Pogba showed against Club América that his strength and technical ability are a huge addition to the defensive corps. With a fresh Brad Guzan coming off a midweek rest, Atlanta United has been strong at the back in recent weeks. If they can show that same form on the road in Portland, it will go a long way toward securing another big league win this weekend.
Portland Timbers (11-9-4)
The Timbers have just risen above the playoff line for the first time this season after a slow start to the year. But don’t let their position fool you; this is a team that is in great form with only Atlanta and LAFC having more wins than Portland since the start of April.
That is due in part to the midseason addition of Brian Fernandez, who has been one of the best new players in the league this year since coming over from Liga MX. Fernandez has 10 goals this year, the most on the team despite playing in only 12 matches this season. His linkup play with 2017 MLS MVP Diego Valeri can open up any team, and with quick, technical players like Sebastian Blanco and Marvin Loria on each wing, Portland have a multi-pronged attack that is among the best in the league. And keep an eye out for Jeremy Ebobisse, the 2017 MLS SuperDraft pick, who has grown into his role as a supporting striker. Whether it’s in the starting XI or coming off the bench as an impact sub, he has shown a growing ability to find the incisive pass to set up his strike partner in Brian Fernandez.
But Portland’s most important piece may be a more defensive-minded piece in Diego Chara. Arguably the best defensive midfielder in the history of the league, Chara’s ever-present nature is capable of locking down a midfield by himself, and his partnership with Christhian Paredes on the defensive side of midfield makes him that much stronger. With fullbacks Jorge Moreira and Zarek Valentin looking to push forward in the attack, the defensive midfield role is crucial for Portland. Getting past Chara and Paredes is a tough but important task for the Atlanta United midfield –– and if they can, it could set them up for success with a match-winning goal.
It’s an MLS Cup rematch and another key match in Atlanta United’s quest for the top seed in the East –– so this is one you definitely don’t want to miss. If you can’t make the trip to the west coast, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.