Portland Timbers see similarities, danger in "dynamic" MLS Cup opponent

Portland Timbers Zarek Valentin and Atlanta United's Hector Villalba — June 24, 2018

BEAVERTON, ORE. — Speaking about Atlanta United, Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese made a surprising comparison to his MLS Cup final opponent: his own team.

“They are similar to us in many ways,” Savarese said. “[Atlanta] can adapt to different systems, different moments in the game they have different ways they can play at you. [The Timbers and Atlanta are] both very adaptable to certain situations.”

Savarese has won a championship in Atlanta before, his New York Cosmos team capturing the NASL title at Atlanta Silverbacks Park in 2013. Of course, the few thousand fans in attendance in that day will be dwarfed by the more than 70,000 opposing fans expected at Saturday’s MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS).

En route to the title game, the Timbers got results on the road from “very tough opponents” — yet Atlanta United are likely the most formidable challenge that Savarese and his team have faced in the 2018 postseason.

Atlanta present tactical issues all over the field for Portland. Savarese was able to mitigate that earlier this season with a 3-5-2 formation that frustrated Josef Martinez to the point where the forward threw his protective face mask in frustration. Yet when the teams met for their 1-1 draw in June, Atlanta placed nine shots on target and controlled nearly 70 percent of the possession.

“I remember from the first time we played them that Atlanta crosses the ball a lot,” Timbers defender Zarek Valentin said. “I think they had 40 crosses [it was 37] against us when we played them.”

Valentin, who praised Atlanta’s one-two punch of MVP candidates in Martinez and Miguel Almiron, added that playing a “free-flowing style” will be crucial but easier said than done against an opponent that pushes numbers forward.

“Martinez is an X-factor in the box,” Valentin said. “I think his goal scoring speaks for itself. He's shown he can score in a variety of ways. We need to be cognizant of him at all times. [But then] you have MVP candidate Almiron running around making things difficult.”

“They have a lot of quality in their attacking players,” added Diego Valeri, who praised Atlanta’s ability to “dominate games.” Noting how good Atlanta is on the ball, Valeri said that head coach Tata Martino’s team uses their center backs and midfielders to create numbers to support a “very dynamic attack.”

“They are a good team. They have a great coach,” Valeri said. “They have been working in the same way for most part of the season. Obviously it's a good challenge for us.”

“They’ve proved throughout the regular season that they are very good, especially at home,” Valentin added. “They've proven they are good team, front to back. They can hurt you on the break. They have a lot of talented pieces that can score at any minute if you are not attentive.

“Obviously, when they have their turf, they have their big field, their spacing, their fans behind them; it’s going to be tough. So we're going to have to go out there and take on a good group of 11, plus 70,000 more.”