Orlando City looks to take its unbeaten streak to four straight to start the season tomorrow night at the Citrus Bowl, but it won't be easy. The Lions welcome the defending MLS champion Portland Timbers to the City Beautiful.
Team captain Kaká is expected to make his 2016 MLS debut, giving the Lions (1-0-2, 5 points) a boost in their nationally televised match-up with the Timbers (1-1-1, 4 points). Orlando City may not have a loss yet, but it is still searching for that elusive first home victory. Last year it took a while. Hopefully, this season it will come earlier. Perhaps tomorrow?
Portland has a dynamic attack force with guys like Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano. But the Timbers have a chink in their defensive armor, with Liam Ridgewell out. Here to help us scout the defending champs is Will Conwell from our SB Nation sister blog covering the Timbers, Stumptown Footy. I've answered their questions as well, in case you want to check that out.
What are Portland's key off-season additions and subtractions that we should know about and how have they affected Caleb Porter's team and approach?
Will Conwell: When looking at what has changed for the Timbers since 2015, one has to pay special attention to the team's left flank. With Jorge Villafana tearing it up in Mexico and Rodney Wallace wandering far off lands, the Timbers found themselves in need of a whole new approach on the left for 2016.
At left back the team brought in Columbus Crew SC defender Chris Klute, intending to shape him into the league's next dominant fullback in much the same way that they had with Villafana. However, when Klute arrived, his recovery from an off-season knee surgery was significantly behind what the Timbers were expecting, forcing the team to scramble to figure out the fullback situation -- further compounded by an injury to center back and team captain Liam Ridgewell. Klute is just now reaching full match fitness, but suddenly finds himself with some competition in 21-year-old Leicester City loanee Jack Barmby. It is unclear who will get the start at left back on Sunday, but for the first time in 2016 the Timbers are starting to approach their preferred option at the position.
Further up the pitch, the transition from Wallace to mid-2015 signing Lucas Melano has been a much less bumpy one. With the team having moved to a 4-3-3 formation late in 2015, Melano and opposite side winger Dairon Asprilla have made the flanks their own. Bringing pace and athleticism to the side, either can be a handful for opposition fullbacks, but both are young and raw players, in need of some tweaking to their respective games if the Timbers are going to be a top side in MLS.
Portland obviously finished strong, winning MLS Cup off a third-place regular season finish in the Western Conference. How has that changed fan expectations for 2016?
WC: If you win the MLS Cup, expectations are going to go up; that's life. For the Timbers, however -- and it seems like the Lions can probably identify with this -- expectations are always going to be high to begin with.
The Timbers may have finished in third place in a ridiculously tight West last season, but they did so with some late smash and grab victories that propelled them up the standings after months and months of flirting with the dreaded red line. At this point, Caleb Porter and company have gained a reputation for turning it on late in the season and peaking at just the right time, but for much of last year, there was plenty of hand-wringing and even speculation that Porter could be on the hot seat if things didn't turn around.
This year, it is hard to determine just how much slack the Timbers are going to get. After going 1-1-1 in March, the Timbers seem to be somehow ahead of expectations. That might be because those four points in March are the Timbers' most to open the season since Porter took over as head coach. Or it might be because the team's back line has been shredded by injuries. Or any number of other reasons.
What kind of formation and tactics can we expect from the Timbers this weekend against what is most likely going to be some variation of a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-3 by Orlando City, and what do you view as the game's key match-up?
WC: The 2016 Timbers are a counter-attacking team. With attack-minded wingers, perhaps the best target forward in the league, and a midfield capable to getting the ball down the pitch quickly and efficiently, the Timbers love to let the opposition come to them before striking down the pitch with ruthless efficiency.
Well, maybe not that ruthless. As is customary for the Timbers early in the season, the finishing is not quite there yet and, despite leading the league in chances created, the side is still more than happy to take whatever half-chances come, rather than engineering fewer full-chances.
Many of those come from Asprilla and Melano on the wings, with the Timbers generating a significant number of their attacking movements from out wide. With Fanendo Adi holding the ball up at the top of the formation for Diego Valeri or Darlington Nagbe to send the ball down either flank, the Timbers' wingers are often put into situations where they have the room and freedom to drive at the opposition box and either shoot or play a ball in for Adi and company to get on the end of. That wing play has been the Timbers' focus for much of the last two weeks, so it should come as little surprise to the Orlando fullbacks when they find themselves under pressure for much of the match.
What is your anticipated starting XI, key injuries/suspensions, and score prediction for Sunday?
Starters: Adam Larsen Kwarasey; Jack Barmby, Jermaine Taylor, Nat Borchers, Alvas Powell; Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe; Lucas Melano, Fanendo Adi, Dairon Asprilla.
Key Injuries: Liam Ridgewell.
Key Suspensions: None.
Score Prediction: None for me, thanks. (Editor's note: Boo!)
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Big thanks to Will from Stumptown Footy for giving us some insight on the defending champs.