MARIETTA, Ga. — Darlington Nagbe is not feeling any nerves as he readies a return to the city where he got his Major League Soccer start. Atlanta United travels to Portland to meet the Timbers at Providence Park this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.
Nagbe played the first seven seasons of his professional career in Portland, winning the MLS Cup in 2015. The United States international faced the Timbers twice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last season — including Atlanta’s MLS Cup final win — but Sunday night will Nagbe’s first appearance in Stumptown as a visitor. As of now, the game does not come with any extra buzz.
“I think playing them in the final, that’s the biggest stage you can get against your former team,” Nagbe said at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground Friday. “But we’ll see. I haven’t been back in that stadium to play against them, so we’ll see.”
Atlanta enters the game surfing a tidal wave of momentum. The Five Stripes have won six of seven in all competitions, including a U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory at Orlando City and the Campeones Cup versus Club América Wednesday. Even their lone defeat in this stretch, 4-3 at Supporters’ Shield leader Los Angeles Football Club, received plaudits for a second-half rally.
Frank de Boer’s team has raised its level in recent weeks, but the quality performances mostly have come at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta has not won an MLS game away from home since May 15 at the Vancouver Whitecaps. De Boer wants that streak to break Sunday.
“We want to make a change as quick as possible in that, because I think we are too good to have that kind of [problem],” the manager said Friday.
Atlanta will be missing two of its regular starters: Franco Escobar sustained a hamstring injury during the first half of the win over América, and Eric Remedi is dealing with an adductor issue. De Boer said Remedi is closer than Escobar to making a recovery. In their stead, Florentin Pogba and Jeff Larentowicz are expected to start against the Timbers. Both played 90 minutes Wednesday.
The Five Stripes believe Portland will play aggressively out of its usual 4-3-3 formation. As he often does, de Boer said winning individual duels will be imperative. That can be a challenge against the Timbers, who have Diego Chará, perhaps the league’s best defensive midfielder, roaming around the center of the pitch. De Boer praised Chara as the player who is “key for Portland to keep the balance in that team” and said Chara and Nagbe made a great midfield pair during the latter’s time in green and gold. Nagbe is tasked with besting his former teammate Sunday.
“With Nagbe, he’s our player who can make a difference in midfield,” de Boer said. “Always you can put the ball at his feet under pressure and make the right choices. I think [Chara] is a little bit of a similar player. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Portland’s attack averages the third-most shots per game in MLS this season. The Timbers have Brian Fernández leading the line after acquiring the Argentine from Mexican side Necaxa in May. Fernández has settled in quickly, scoring 10 goals in his first 12 league appearances. To hear de Boer discuss the player’s qualities, Fernández sounds a lot like Atlanta’s own goleador, Josef Martínez.
“He’s a great striker,” de Boer said.” He’s smart. He’s not the biggest but always in the right spot, uses his body really well. They did a good signing.”
Pogba, who won his first professional trophy this week, is taking a fearless attitude into any potential matchups with Fernández.
“Personally, I don’t care if he plays or not,” Pogba said. “I have to do my work. If Brian plays or another striker, I have to be strong. … He’s a good player, but we play every game against good players. It doesn’t scare me.”