Atlanta United (10-3-3) is putting its Eastern Conference lead on the line as they host one of the strongest teams in the Western Conference, the Portland Timbers (6-3-4), at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday. The Timbers are unbeaten in their last 8 and have the reigning MLS MVP in their lineup, so they’re looking to be as strong as ever. Make sure to buy tickets or tune in to catch some of the best in the league in possibly the game of the week in MLS this week.
Ahead of this weekend’s game, we broke down the Tools to the Match presented by The Home Depot:
Manage the Maestro
Any breakdown of the Timbers in the past six years has to start with Diego Valeri. The Argentine midfielder has been one of the best players in the league ever since he made the move from Lanús –– also a former club of Miguel Almirón –– back in 2013, and he was at his very best last year. A ridiculous 21 goals and 11 assists earned him the 2017 MLS MVP award, and his six goals this year isn’t far off that pace. The 32-year-old isn’t as quick as his counterpart Almirón in the Atlanta midfield, but he’s been just as effective with clever passing and technical skill that has earned him three All-Star appearances and three MLS Best XI awards in the past five years. He’s still the star man in a strong midfield. His six goals is best on the team and his three assist is tied for the best on the team so far this year., so he’s still the star man in a strong midfield. Tata Martino often says the same thing about facing star players: try to limit their time on the ball, pressure them when they get it and don’t get caught in one-on-one situations against them. It takes more than one guy to stop a player like Valeri, so communication will be key for the Atlanta United back line.
While Valeri is the main man, he got the rest earlier this week with Timbers coach Gio Savarese trusting in his Argentine teammate in the midfield to get the job done. And Sebastián Blanco did that, scoring the winning goal against the Galaxy to send the Timbers on to the Quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. That goal brought him level on the year with Valeri in goals and assists (albeit one in a cup competition), an impressive rate for any player. And no one has stepped up on the road for Portland more than his midfield partner Sebastián Blanco. His three goals and three assists so far on the road this year ranks him as the fifth-best player in all of MLS away from home so far this year. Blanco is a high-energy, versatile player that brings a lot of dynamism and quickness to the Timbers midfield. Slowing him down will be another key for the Atlanta United midfield in this match.
Rebuild the fortress
Portland’s eight-match unbeaten streak includes impressive wins over big teams like NYCFC and LAFC. But that streak only included two road games against the two bottom teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings. That run isn’t tested on the road, and a near cross-country trip to Atlanta will be a big test. The homefield advantage in Mercedes-Benz Stadium is clear: the red, black and gold have scored 22 goals at home this year, three more than any other team in the league. But just in the rearview is Atlanta United’s first ever two-match losing streak at home, in which they only scored one goal. The Five Stripes’ home was a fortress last season, and strong home form is a common thread among championship teams. Atlanta United will be looking to recapture that dominance, with the help of #17 in the stands.
Follow the Match:
Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. EST, with the match set to be broadcast on FOX and streamed on FOX Sports GO. You can listen to the game on the Atlanta United app or through one of our radio partners: 92.9 The Game or, for Spanish-speaking listeners, La Mejor Atlanta. Click here for a full rundown of how to follow along with the game.