Atlanta United entered Major League Soccer with more fanfare than any club in league history, and they've started their inaugural season in style: averaging more than 50,000 fans per game at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and playing some of the most exciting soccer in the league.
On Sunday afternoon, Atlanta makes its second ever trip to Cascadia for a marquee matchup against a Portland Timbers team looking to bounce back from its worst result of the season last Saturday night in San Jose (1:00 PM, TV on ESPN).
There isn't much. This will be the first meeting of the Timbers and Atlanta United in any competition, and first competitive game between clubs from the two cities since the USL Timbers met the Atlanta Silverbacks in July of 2008 — when Lawrence Olum scored a 90th minute equalizer for Portland.
Atlanta does not have any former Timbers on their expansion roster, and coaches Caleb Porter and Gerardo Martino — most recently of Barcelona and Argentina — have never faced each other.
Atlanta is coming off of a 3-1 loss at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC last Sunday, but is unbeaten against the Western Conference with a win and a draw thus far in its MLS existence. The Timbers enter the game after what was, by some margin, their worst showing of the season last weekend: A 3-0 loss at San Jose.
Without both Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe against San Jose last weekend, the Timbers were completely bereft of attacking ideas. Valeri, after missing two games, is set to return to the lineup this weekend. Nagbe's status is less certain. The U.S. international hasn't been ruled out, but he hasn't trained yet this week.
If Nagbe can't play, Porter could go in several different directions on the left wing. Dairon Asprilla has been the first choice attacker off the bench so far this season, but he's been ineffective of late and lasted just 57 minutes at San Jose.
Darren Mattocks has been better, but isn't a natural winger. Jack Barmby is another candidate to get a first start, while Victor Arboleda impressed in his debut last weekend. Mattocks seems most likely at this point. Jake Gleeson, out for three weeks, should be back in goal.
In front of Gleeson, with the Timbers failing to add a new center back ahead of the close of the transfer window on Monday, it's Liam Ridgewell and Olum at center back until July. The pair will have their work cut out for them.
When they're on, Atlanta plays faster and applies more pressure than any team in the league — and they could welcome back two starters in Josef Martinez and Yamil Asad who have seven goals this year and are vital to that press. If Martinez plays, it will be a highly uncomfortable 90 minutes for the Timbers' pace-challenged defense.
That said, the Timbers should have attacking joy as well. Atlanta is giving up more than two goals per game in their last five, and has suffered from momentary lapses all year. Fanendo Adi has a significant size advantage over the Atlanta center backs, and could have a big afternoon. There should be plenty of goals.
90 - Gleeson
5 - Vytas
24 - Ridgewell (C)
13 - Olum
2 - Powell
20 - Guzman
21 - Chara
11 - Mattocks
8 - Valeri
10 - Blanco
9 - Adi
This should be a highly, highly entertaining game. Atlanta has already gotten results at Seattle and Toronto this season, and won't be fazed by the atmosphere at Providence Park. But Caleb Porter has an excellent record in cross-conference games at home, and the Timbers will want to make a statement. They win 3-2.