In this week's intelligence report, it's time to get to know a little more about Sunday's foes, the Portland Timbers. Here to help us get ready for the game is Chris Rifer, a contributing editor from Stumptown Footy, our fellow SB Nation blog.
Who are three Timbers players that Orlando City fans should know about?
Chris Rifer: Right now everything runs through Darlington Nagbe. Without hesitation, Nagbe is one of the two or three best on-ball players in MLS. With Diego Valeri out, Nagbe has stepped up as a primary playmaker even if, as Matthew Doyle at the MLS site wrote last week, that's not necessarily his natural role. Expect Nagbe to nominally line up on the right wing, but play effectively like an attacking central midfielder.
Second, Diego Chara is the Timbers' biggest presence as a more holding midfielder, although the box-to-box tag is probably more the more appropriate description, as he's not a true number six like Amobi Okugo. Rather, Chara is the Timbers' primary ball-winner and disruptor in midfield, and at times he can be relentless. There is a reason he is perennially near the top of MLS in fouls committed.
Finally, Liam Ridgewell has really become the backbone of the Timbers' back line from his left center back position. Ridgewell has been solid in defense for the Timbers (aside from a crucial late-game gaffe in Vancouver), but perhaps his biggest step forward in 2015 has been in distribution. For those following MLS closely last year, this isn't the same cringe-inducing back line the Timbers rolled out for much of the summer of 2014.
What is the team's preferred style of play and formation?
CR: When healthy, the Timbers have been pretty consistent in deploying a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that likes to keep possession, build from the back, and primarily play through Valeri as an attacking central midfielder. Valeri, however, is still about a month away from returning from a torn ACL. In addition, Chara's partner in central midfield and team captain, Will Johnson, is also working his way back from a broken leg.
With the key injuries, then, Caleb Porter has had to be a bit more creative early in 2015. Porter has tried a number of different things -- from absorbing a bit more pressure and going direct, to, more recently, putting two true forwards up top and playing a more traditional 4-4-2. That 4-4-2 is what I expect to see against Orlando City, but the formation is a little bit harder to pin down stylistically this early.
Against Vancouver (a game in which the Timbers were quite good, especially in the second half), Portland was as possession-oriented as we've seen this year, with Vancouver sitting off a bit and defending in a lower block. Against Dallas last week, however, the Timbers were a little bit more direct, with the Burn pressing Portland a little bit more.
However the Timbers ultimately play, though, expect to see Alvas Powell (a young Jamaican right back who is oozing with potential, even if he fights occasional bouts of indiscipline) bombing on liberally to provide width on the right with Nagbe pinching in.
What have you learned about Portland through the first few MLS games this season?
CR: We've learned they're still trying to figure out how to manage Valeri's absence. To be honest, it's gone a little better than I thought it would, in no small part because Nagbe has been tremendous. But the attack hasn't been consistent and there have certainly been times where the talisman's absence has been conspicuous. That said, the Timbers have shown signs of starting to get things sorted out in the attack, so some of those consistency troubles may be behind them.
The other thing, and I imagine this is something Orlando City fans will sympathize with, the Timbers have had trouble closing out results. But for two stoppage-time concessions, the Timbers would be sitting on nine points right now and feeling pretty good about themselves. As it is, they're sitting on six and still a little bit unsure of whether they can stay afloat until Valeri and Johnson rejoin the team.
What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the team at this point?
CR: The biggest weakness by some distance has been closing out games. Positionally, I think the only real question marks right now are in goal, where Adam Kwarasey hasn't lit the world on fire in his debut for the Timbers, and alongside Chara in defensive midfield, where George Fochive has been filling in for Johnson and Ben Zemanski (Johnson's backup who also is sidelined with a long-term injury).
As for strength, I think the Timbers' balance and tactical discipline has been remarkable considering the variety of approaches Porter has employed this year. Aside from 15 or 20 minutes against the LA Galaxy and a little bit of a rough opening spell at Sporting Kansas City, there haven't been very many passages in games in which things have felt out of Portland's control or where it's appeared the Timbers were exposed. That's pretty remarkable considering the injury epidemic among key players for Portland.
What are the fans' expectations for the club, both realistic and unrealistic?
CR: The ambitious expectation is to be a contender for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup. This is largely based on a 2013 season in which the Timbers won the regular-season Western Conference crown, and a 2014 in which the team was among the better teams in MLS after May, but were ultimately held down by a horrific start to the season.
I think the Supporters Shield is going to be tough, however, in light of the injuries. The reality is the Timbers are probably going to drop enough points between now and when they're back to full health that they won't be able to mount a realistic table-topping campaign. I think a top-four finish in the West is a more realistic expectation, which would be significant, as it would give the Timbers home-field advantage in the knockout round and let them get to the two-leg series. If they can get and stay healthy, this could be a very dangerous team in October.
What do you expect the starting XI to look like on Friday and what is your score prediction?
CR: Starting XI -- Kwarasey; Jorge Villafana, Ridgewell, Nat Borchers, Powell; Rodney Wallace, Chara, Fochive, Nagbe; Maximiliano Urruti, Fanendo Adi.
Final Score: 2-0, Timbers. On two weeks' evidence, I'm going to take a leap of faith and buy that the Timbers have sorted out some of the kinks in their attack. Portland's back line has also been quite good, so I'm skeptical the Lions' depleted attack is going to be able to create a lot from the run of play. That, however, is far from a safe prediction with Kaká pulling the strings, even if the personnel around him is a little bit thin right now.
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Big thanks to Chris for helping us get to know more about our new foes.