Orlando City hits the Pacific Northwest for the second time this season (following the 1-1 draw at Seattle back in June), as the Lions head to Providence Park for the one and only meeting with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.
Cyle Larin will have fond memories of his last visit to Providence Park, where he scored his first professional goal in a 2-0 win back in April of 2015. The Lions kept Timber Joey’s chainsaw silent that day, but doing that again will not be easy.
It’s been a long time since these teams have played. What’s different about the 2017 Portland Timbers?
Will Conwell: The last time that the Portland Timbers faced off against Orlando City was the end of Caleb Porter's 4-3-3, with Darlington Nagbe at holding midfield. Nagbe has since reprised his role as a No. 8, but it was that loss that truly convinced Timbers fans that the MLS Cup run was over and that 2016 was a new year.
In 2016, Lucas Melano was still the hope of the Timbers, a $5 million signing with speed to burn and the potential to be a star. Now Melano is out and Sebastian Blanco is in. Where Melano was an up and coming youngster, Blanco is a player in his prime; where Melano's game was all-out attack, Blanco is a two-way player who gets stuck in on both sides of the ball; and where the enduring image of Melano is of him walking back behind the play (despite being instrumental in the Timbers' 2015 cup run and win), the image of Blanco is always of a player getting stuck in.
In 2016, the Timbers had replaced the injured Liam Ridgewell with Jamaican mainstay and MLS journeyman Jermaine Taylor. This year, the Timbers brought in Congolese international Larrys Mabiala, a TAM signing, to shore up their back line. A strong, ball-winning center back, Mabiala has already proven his worth to the Timbers, helping to strengthen a back line that has had significant issues this year.
In 2016, the Timbers were still struggling to sort out a lineup that had been gutted by their cup run, losing left back Jorge Villafana and left winger Rodney Wallace to the ravages of the salary cap. Early 2016 was a downswing for the Timbers; now Orlando faces a Timbers side on the upswing.
Diego Valeri is always good but he seems to have found another gear in 2017. How has he evolved into a strong MVP candidate?
WC: Over the last two years following the Timbers' MLS Cup win in 2015, Diego Valeri has transformed himself from a master playmaker (23 goals and 35 assists in 86 games from 2013-2015) into a scoring machine (32 goals and 16 assists in 58 games from 2016 to 2017). That transformation has come as a result of significant changes in both Valeri's game and the game of the Timbers as a whole.
The changes in Valeri's game can largely be traced back to the arrival of Fanendo Adi in 2014 and Valeri's extended absence at the start of the 2015 season as he recovered from a torn ACL. With Valeri out, still recovering in the beginning of 2015, and Adi providing the focal point of the Timbers' attack as he came into his own as a target forward, opening up space for those playing off him, the Timbers’ shape changed dramatically. Rather than three forwards making runs for their No. 10 in the center of the pitch, the Timbers were now two wingers making runs off of their No. 9 and an attacking midfielder with space in which to work on the edge of the area, as Adi drew in two or three defenders at a time with his hold-up play.
With that sort of black hole for defenders at the top of the Timbers' formation opening up space, it only made sense for Diego Valeri to shoot, rather than looking for the weighted pass with which he had prospered in his early days with the Timbers. Thankfully for Timbers fans, Valeri is very good at shooting.
Now focused on taking advantage of that space, rather than simply making space for others, Valeri changed his game up. And as the Timbers continued to mold their play around strong hold-up from their forwards, it paid off.
What tactics have been successful for teams who have taken points against Portland this season both on offense and defense?
WC: The Timbers have allowed a lot of goals this year, so narrowing it down is difficult on the defensive side of the ball, but even so there are three approaches that teams have taken this season that stick out.
First, the Timbers have struggled under high pressure at times this season. While the back line looks much improved from where it was in the middle of the season, the Timbers have still shown some significant cases of nerves when put under aggressive pressure from opposition forwards. (Hello, Dom Dwyer.)
Perhaps this is down to the team's constantly rotating back six failing to gel — injuries, call ups, and suspensions have wreaked havoc on the Timbers this year — but that the sort of silly, errant passes under pressure are still happening this late in the season is a source of worry. Liam Ridgewell is certainly still in need of time to settle in after his most recent extended absence due to injury, but Timbers backups Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum have each seen plenty of minutes this year.
Second, the Timbers have shown a propensity for giving up free kicks, getting unsettled, and failing to clear the ball in a timely fashion. This is a far more erratic aspect of the Timbers’ game and one that seems to surface at the most unseemly of times. While the back line's struggles elsewhere can be blamed on familiarity, this seems more like an organizational issue.
Neither Jake Gleeson nor Jeff Attinella have looked particularly impressive in goal this year and a large part of that has come in these sorts of situations, sometimes failing to punch or grab a free kick into the box, or getting caught up in the chaos of the scrum. This would be less of an issue if the Timbers had a more vocal presence on the back line, but the side's captain, Ridgewell, has been in and out of availability all year.
Finally, when it comes to shutting down the Timbers attack — particularly without Adi on the pitch — nothing beats packing it in and daring the Timbers to cross the ball. While the Timbers do have the highest scoring attack in the Western Conference, without Adi to toss around opposing center backs like leaves on the wind everything becomes just a little bit harder for everyone else on the team.
Denying space to Valeri is difficult but doable, but denying Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco space to work the ball into the box is much easier. Both players are capable of uncorking a shot from distance, but Nagbe has been notoriously goal-averse in recent seasons and Blanco seems to still be finding his legs in MLS, although five goals and seven assists as a first-year winger is nothing to scoff at. Without Adi to draw players away and create space, even the energetic runs of Darren Mattocks are rarely able to open up a gap for the Timbers' wide players to squeeze through.
Injuries?/Suspensions?/Projected Starting XI?/Score Prediction?
WC: Injuries — Out: Gbenga Arokoyo, Chance Myers, Marco Farfan; Questionable: Jeff Attinella, Vytas Andriuškevičius, Fanendo Adi, David Guzman.
Suspensions — None.
Projected starting XI — Jake Gleeson; Vytas Andriuškevičius, Liam Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala, Zarek Valentin; David Guzman, Diego Chara; Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe; Darren Mattocks.
Prediction — 2-1, Portland.
Big thanks to Will from Stumptown Footy for taking time out to give us some background on the Timbers.