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MLS Cup: Breaking down the Timbers’ approach to containing Atlanta United

ATLANTA — The Portland Timbers take on one of the most daunting tactical challenges of their season in Saturday’s MLS Cup. 

Portland’s defensive unit must find a way to contain Atlanta United’s bevy of talented attackers, including Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and former teammate Darlington Nagbe. 

Based on the game plan they utilized during their 1-1 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on June 24 and their previous playoff successes, the Timbers are cultivating a game plan they think is capable of halting the progress of Atlanta’s attack. 

“The same thing we do every single week,” Timbers centerback Liam Ridgewell said. “Every team in the MLS has got an unbelievable attack. I’m sure you can ask Atlanta the same thing about ours with [Sebastián Blanco], [Diego] Valeri and [Jeremy] Ebobisse. Are you going to commit too many people and leave one open?” 

During the regular-season meeting between the two sides, the Five Stripes completed 579 passes compared to 263 by Portland, completed 89 percent of their passes compared to Portland’s 73 percent and controlled 69.3 percent of the possession.

The Five Stripes opted to attack down the flanks for the majority of the 1-1 draw, using Julian Gressel and Ezequiel Barco, with Almiron chipping in from the No. 10 role. 

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The Timbers countered Atlanta’s approach back in June with a 3-5-2. Zarek Valentin and Alvas Powell occupied the wingback positions. 

Of the two teams, Portland will have the most changes from the June contest. Ridgewell will likely partner with Larrys Mabiala at center back, Jorge Villafana on the opposite flank of Valentin, Jeremy Ebobisse at forward and Andy Polo inserted into the midfield of what should be a 4-2-3-1 formation. 

“I think definitely there’s some lessons to be taken in terms of personnel and what they can bring,” Valentin said. “Obviously, both teams have changed a lot since the game in June. Both teams have changed a lot and we’re going to look back and say, ‘We’ve come in before and gotten a result in this building in front of this crowd, and hopefully he can do it again.'” 

Diego Chará and Valeri were the two focal points of the Timbers’ midfield that played the Five Stripes before. And Chará, a Colombian defensive midfielder who many regard as the best at his position in Major League Soccer, carries one of the most important tasks on the field Saturday. 

“Diego is the glue,” Mabiala said of Chará. “He’s everywhere you need him to be. It’s very important to have him in front of us. He’s been amazing and when he’s on the field, everybody feels more comfortable.” 

Conversely, Nagbe could be the most important cog in Atlanta’s midfield by connecting passes between the back four and the players ahead of him on the field, which makes stopping him a must for a Timbers team that is more than aware of his tendencies. 

“Darlington this year has given us that pause and balance in midfield, which is something we didn’t have last year,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino said. “We are a very aggressive team, we ran a lot, we attacked a lot and those are qualities we’ve maintained this season.” 

Said Chará: “In my opinion, Darlington is a special player. We played together for seven years and I know him, he knows me.” 

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During Atlanta’s 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final, the majority of Nagbe’s actions came on the right side. If the Timbers want Chará to stick with his former teammate, then midfielder David Guzmán will have more space to cover in front of the back four and Valentin will be able to contain the overlapping runs made by Franco Escobar. 

Even if Chará and Guzmán succeed in shutting down Nagbe’s impact, they’re still going to have to lock up the big-play potential of Almiron and Martinez, who only need one or two chances to make a difference. 

Although the Timbers have made it known they’re going to attack the Five Stripes, it would be wise of them to sit back in blocks of four over the first 20-25 minutes to start frustrating the home side and feeling out where the holes are to exploit on the counterattack.

As witnessed in the second leg of the Western Conference final, the Timbers have the potential to strike as fast as Atlanta with Blanco and Diego Valeri in the fold. 

During the June visit to Atlanta, Blanco and Valeri were able to create on a few occasions in the middle of the field, and they weren’t afraid to drop back and receive the ball to start attacks either. 

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Last Thursday against Sporting Kansas City, the pair of South Americans had a similar impact, with Blanco drifting more to the left to set up chances. 

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With the ability to thrive in any area of the final third, either in a natural attacking buildup or on the counter, Portland’s pair of dangerous attackers will threaten Atlanta at some point, with Ebobisse lingering in the penalty area to finish off a key pass. 

How often the Timbers find themselves in those situations relies on how effective the defensive gameplan is. 

Limiting Martinez’s runs between the centerbacks will be key, but in terms of limiting movement of one attacking player, Almiron is one to focus in on.

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In his last home game against the Red Bulls, Almiron completed 11 passes in the opponent’s half of the field, with the majority of them played across the field or diagonally and seven of them made in the first 45 minutes. 

If the Portland can squash Almiron’s opportunities on the ball in the opening stretches of Saturday’s contest, it will be an evenly-matched competition with Giovanni Savarese’s Timbers taking more risks into the final third.

And if the game is tied in the final 20 minutes, all strategy could be thrown out the window in search of the game-winning goal. 

Until they’re forced to adapt in the middle of the final, the Timbers have the backbone of a game plan that, if successful, it’ll wreak havoc on the home side. 




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