Atlanta United Head Coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino watches during their practice at Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in Marietta on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A key for Atlanta United is controlling Portland’s midfield

A key for Atlanta United to defeat Portland and win the MLS Cup will be limiting the effectiveness of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara.

Valeri, 32, led the Timbers with 12 assists and added 10 goals during the regular season. Blanco, 30, complemented Valeri with 10 goals and 11 assists. Chara was the engine of the midfield, breaking up attacks and starting counterattacks by getting the ball to Valeri or Blanco.

“They have a lot of quality,” Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel said. “They play together really well.”

After switching back to a 3-5-2 formation, Atlanta United has been very good defensively in the postseason, particularly against the opponent’s key players. NYCFC’s David Villa and Maxi Moralez were shutout and mostly shut down in two games. So were New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kaku and Daniel Royer.

Stopping Valeri, Blanco and Chara will require getting as close to them as possible to limit the time they have on the ball, said Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz. 

Sporting KC failed to close down Blanco in the second leg of the Western Conference finals and he scored one of the best goals in league history, a screamer from at least 25 yards away. Valeri scored the other two goals. The first was a header on a counterattack. The winner came when he got behind Sporting KC’s defense for a one-one one with goalkeeper Tim Melia. Chara had the assist. 

“Chara kind of sets everything up,” Atlanta United’s Darlington Nagbe said. “Him winning the ball, sparking the counterattack and finding those two guys up top. Those guys can create something out of nothing.”

Atlanta United defended the trio well in the 1-1 draw during the regular season. Blanco had two shots, none on goals. Valeri had one. It also wasn’t on goal. 

“They are three talented, experienced players,” Larentowciz said. “It’s going to be challenging.”

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