Atlanta United (10-3-3) are looking to bounce back from their U.S. Open Cup defeat by extending their red-hot league form this weekend as they host the Portland Timbers (6-3-4) for the first time ever at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Timbers are unbeaten in eight matches, while the Five Stripes have strung together four straight without a loss in league play themselves. It’s a can’t-miss matchup between one of the top teams in both conferences. Here’s what the red, black and gold need to watch out for to get another win:
The Key Creators
As mentioned in this week’s Tools to the Match, the key creators for the Timbers are their two Argentine playmakers, Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco. Valeri is coming off an MVP season where he notched 21 goals and 11 assists, and is showing no signs of slowing down with nine goals already created this year. But Blanco is a just as much a vital collaborator in the attacking third, equaling Valeri in both goals and assists so far this year (taking U.S. Open Cup matches into account). Valeri is a smooth, technical dribbler with an eye as good as anyone for the crucial pass. Blanco complements him with quickness and energy to go along with plenty of technical skill of his own. It’s one of the premier creative duos in MLS and will have to be the primary focus for Atlanta United defenders on Sunday.
The Midfield Anchor
There’s only one stat that can truly capture how important Diego Chara is to the success of the Portland Timbers. The last time Portland won a match without the Colombian defensive midfielder getting on the pitch was back in July 2015. When he hasn’t been on the field, they haven’t won in 18 matches. Chara is a crucial counterbalance to the creativity in the Portland midfield, and when he’s healthy, there are few better at the position in the league. He’s the all-time appearances leader for the Timbers, and it’s not hard to see why. A tenacious tackler with endless energy, he is a key disruptor breaking up their opponents’ attacks –– with the technical skill to be a calming influence in possession or to spring turnovers into counter-attacking opportunities.
The Timbers midfield will be constantly looking to feed two lethal strikers in Fanendo Adi and Samuel Armenteros. Adi is a prototypical #9, a 6’4” scorer who has reached double digit goals each of the past three seasons. Joining him this season has been Swedish newcomer Armenteros, who joined Portland this season after spending time in the Dutch and Italian top divisions. Armenteros has three goals and an assist in just four starts to the club. It’s a small sample size, but if this goal is anything to go by, Portland fans have plenty to look forward to from their new striker.
Sunday’s match kicks off at 4:30 p.m. EST on FOX, FOX Sports Go, as well as our radio partners, 92.9 The Game and La Mejor Radio. Click here for a full breakdown of all the ways to follow along.