The Portland Timbers travel Atlanta United to face the Eastern Champions in MLS Cup at the weekend. Being scared of their opposition, however, is no help at all.
It was often said that Manchester United would beat teams before the match ever began. As opposing teams came to Old Trafford and stood in the tunnel prior to kick off, they would look at their opposite numbers and feel the fear of God come over them.
David Beckham. Roy Keane. Paul Scholes. Ryan Giggs. Ruud van Nistelrooy. Gary Neville. Rio Ferdinand. What were you meant to do against such a prolifically brilliant team?
The fear that teams felt paralysed them before they ever even stepped foot on a blade of grass. And they would subsequently be dismantled in front of a baying Old Trafford crowd, eaten alive thanks to their crippling terror.
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For the Portland Timbers, they face a similarly mammoth task. Perhaps the greatest team in MLS history. On the road. In MLS Cup. If ever there was a time to fall to fear, this would be it.
And the Timbers players are aware of the quality of the team that they face. Zarek Valentin stated:
"“Martinez is an X-factor in the box. 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.”"
Diego Valeri, often the man who is striking fear into others, not having it inflicted on himself, also conceded that Atlanta United will be a major challenge:
"“They are a good team. They have a great coach. They have been working in the same way for most part of the season. Obviously it’s a good challenge for us.”"
Head Coach Gio Savarese praised their flexibility, as proven by differing style wins in the MLS Playoffs:
"“[Atlanta] can adapt to different systems, different moments in the game they have different ways they can play at you.”"
This Atlanta team is outstanding. They might be the most complete in all of MLS. And then you can add Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron into the mix, the deadliest of striking duos in the whole league, both of which are MVP candidates. But being frightened of them does not help anyone.
The New York Red Bulls were scared of Atlanta. It is why they changed their tactics and lost the first leg 3-0. New York City FC never really gave Atlanta a go, afraid to truly unleash all of their attacking potential, playing that little bit more conservatively in the playoffs. Portland must be bold and brave. They must obviously respect Atlanta’s quality, but they cannot allow the Five Stripes the mental ascendancy before a ball has even been kicked.
Fear will cripple the Timbers. It did in the first half against Sporting Kansas on Thursday. They recovered. If the same happens at the weekend, I am not sure they will be given the same opportunity of resurrection. Portland must not be afraid. This match must be won on the pitch, not in the tunnel beforehand.