ATLANTA — Each time Atlanta United FC and the Portland Timbers have met, they have played to 1-1 draws.
Liam Ridgewell and Julian Gressel scored the goals for their respective sides in the club’s first meeting, on May 14, 2017, a match that saw five yellow cards handed out. Larrys Mabiala scored first for the Timbers in their second meeting, on June 24 earlier this year in Atlanta, and Gressel netted the equalizer in the 56th minute.
Since that match in June, both rosters have changed. Each team has added at least one player who will likely start in Saturday’s Major League Soccer Cup Final. One of these players — Portland’s Jorge Villafaña or Atlanta’s Eric Remedi — could give their side an edge Saturday.
Portland brought Villafaña back into the fold in August. He was a key player on their 2015 MLS Cup winning team and has started at left back since returning to the club.
The 29-year-old spent the first nine years of his professional career in MLS, with Chivas USA and Portland, before leaving for a stint in Liga MX. He logged 53 appearances over three seasons with Santos Laguna and won a championship there, becoming just the third American to win MLS and Liga MX titles.
Villafaña has also become a fixture with the U.S. men’s national team, getting 21 caps with the Stars and Stripes since 2017. Atlanta United left back Greg Garza first met Villafaña in youth camps with the national team. With new manager Gregg Berhalter in place, the two could be battling for time at the position.
They’re good friends. But for at least 90 minutes on Saturday, they’ll be enemies.
“I call him Sueño, because that’s what I always knew him as from when I was 16 years old and he started coming into national team camps. He wasn’t a left back then and neither was I,” Garza said. “It’s kind of funny to see how we’ve both ended up at the left back position as a pro. For the both of us, I’m sure we’re proud of each other. I’m a good friend of his and he’s a good friend of mine. It’s crazy how much time has passed and we’re still in touch.”
Villafaña has started in each of the Timbers’ postseason contests. Since rejoining Portland, the Anaheim, California native has provided two assists and stout defense. In Portland’s Western Conference final win over Sporting Kansas City, Villafaña totaled four tackles, four clearances, three interceptions and 38 successful passes.
In going against Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, Villafaña’s athleticism and ability to get the ball and carry it forward could be key in neutralizing Atlanta’s attacking duo.
“It’s up to us to try and keep (Martinez) quiet and nullify anything that they’ve got going forward and try and hurt them going the other way,” Portland defender Liam Ridgewell said. “The best way we can defend is by hurting them and making them defend a lot more than we do.”
Atlanta United made a mid-season addition too, and that player has also provided top-level defense and the occasional offensive highlight.
Since joining the Five Stripes in July via transfer from Argentine club Banfield, Remedi has been a starter and a fixture in Atlanta’s midfield. He made his debut as a late substitute in Atlanta’s 3-1 home win over D.C. United on July 21, and has started in 16 consecutive contests since.
Remedi, 23, has been described by his teammates and Atlanta United’s staff as a hunter, a worker, tough, gifted, fantastic and a playmaker.
Atlanta United was winning without him, but he filled the gap left in the midfield by Carlos Carmona. A key player with the club last year as a true No. 6, Carmona departed just before the season started after he requested and was granted a transfer back to his native Chile.
Remedi has filled that hole and has paired well with Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe, connecting the Five Stripes offense and defense. In Atlanta’s two games against the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, Remedi tallied three tackles, two clearances, three interceptions and 39 successful passes.
“I think Eric is a fantastic player,” Nagbe said. “I think he’s really good on the ball, confident on the ball and can create attacks, but at the same time he’s a ball-winner. I think he adds maybe a bit more play-making from that position and I think we’re all happy to have him.”
Remedi rarely scores for Atlanta United, but actually netted the club’s first postseason goal when he tapped a ball past Sean Johnson in 37th minute, giving the Five Stripes a 1-0 first leg win against NYCFC in the conference semifinals.
Being in the right place at the right time has been one of Remedi’s biggest attributes. It’s one of the reasons why he’s been a starter since arriving to Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s side, and one of the reasons why he could make a difference on Saturday.
“I think Eric gives us more playing in the middle, more passes, more position. He’s very important for us,” Atlanta centerback Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez said. “We take Jeff (Larentowicz) in the back and he’s more of a recovery man. We have a great combination.
“Maybe we are better (with Remedi) this time.”