The Five Stripes are coming off a midweek trophy raise at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it’s right back to work as Atlanta United (13-9-3) travel to the west coast to face the Portland Timbers (11-9-4). With the top of the Eastern Conference as competitive as ever, it’s another big match for Atlanta’s push for the top seed in the East, while Portland come in with great form of their own as they fight for playoff positioning of their own.
Ahead of the major interconference matchup, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot:
Focus on Fernandez
There is no striker in MLS in better form than Josef Martinez, but the one closest to him may be Portland’s Brian Fernandez. Since signing a Designated Player contract for the Timbers midseason, he’s scored ten goals in twelve matches, giving them a huge boost to kickstart their slow start and get them above the playoff line. Fernandez is lightning quick and intelligent with his movement to peel away from defenders –– and is one of the most clinical finishers in the league when the chances do come. Keeping a man on Fernandez at all times, keeping his back to goal and not giving him an inch of space in the box will be key to shutting down the Timbers attack on Sunday.
Win the Midfield
Whenever two top teams meet, the match is often won in the midfield, and that will be no different this weekend. In Diego Chara, Portland have one of the best defensive midfielders in the history of the league, while Atlanta’s Darlington Nagbe is the very best at what he does in keeping possession and pushing the ball forward into the attack. It’s a fascinating matchup in Nagbe’s first trip back to Portland since making the move from the Timbers before last season. Both players are playing at the peak of their powers right now, and know each other well as friends and former teammates. Whoever comes on top will give a crucial edge to their team this weekend.
Feed the King
A road match can be swung by one moment of brilliance, and no one in this league has had more of them in front of goal over the past two months than the reigning MVP, Josef Martinez. His 10-match league scoring streak is a new MLS record, and his 15 goals in that time are six more than anyone else in the league. With dynamic players like Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martínez around him rounding into their best form –– and Julian Gressel’s signature service form the flank resumed –– Atlanta’s attack is a handful for any defense. If they can get on the board first, it could quiet down a loud Portland crowd and put them in pole position to bring three vital points back to Atlanta.
It's two of the elite teams in MLS fighting for a prime spot in the playoff positions, and with MLS Cup still on both teams’ minds, this is one you won’t want to miss. If you can’t make the trip to the West Coast, click here for all the ways to tune into the match.