What Are They All About? Portland Timbers Preview
Sweet, sweet victory! Fans of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club were pinching themselves after the final whistle of Saturday’s match as the jumbotron proclaimed a 1-0 victory for the Fire over Houston. More important than the result was the performance as Chicago peppered Houston’s net with twenty shots, seven of which were on target. To put those numbers in perspective Chicago had managed just 22 shots on target in the ten matches prior to Houston’s visit. They trotted out the 4-3-3 for just the third time this season and despite a massive gap in possession stats it seems to be gelling quite nicely.
The Fire won’t have too much time to bask in the glory of victory with another match on the horizon. The Portland Timbers will be making their way to Toyota Park in the lone 2016 iteration of this fixture and both teams will be looking to make an emphatic statement going into the Copa America Centenario break. Despite being the holders of the 2015 MLS Cup (Portland) and the 2016 Simple Invitational Champions (Chicago) neither team is where they would like to be in the standings at this point of the season. A win could go a long way for both sides as Chicago and Portland could go into the break as high as seventh in their respective conferences, just one spot outside of playoff position.
Will it be the man bunned/lady undercut, microbrew drinking (it’s actually closer to an APA or an IPL than an IPA), bike riding, composting, tattooed, Jack Kerouac reading, American Spirit (if you don’t roll your own) smoking, French bulldog owning, “I liked that band before they were a band”, “these glasses aren’t prescription”, “does anyone have mustache wax?”, “I know the family history of my lettuce” vegan, 8th wave feminist, DIY outfit wearing hipsters in Green and Gold, or those in Red and White that come out on top?
Portland Form Guide (Last 5 Matches): W-L-L-L-W
Previous match: A 4-2 home win over Vancouver.
Formation in the last match: 4-2-3-1: Gleeson; Valentin, Borchers, Ridgewell, Taylor; Chara, Zemanski; Melano, Valeri, Nagbe; McInerney
Strengths: Although the Timbers lost to Chicago in the final match of their preseason tournament, that result will have no bearing on this match. Portland has many of the same pieces that led to a 2015 MLS Cup victory and their attacking prowess has them in the top five of the “goals for” category with 21. Let’s take a look at where they might thrive against Chicago.
“Ponerse la Camiseta”: We’ll start with the obligatory discussion of Diego Valeri, a signing that has set a new standard for the expectation of bringing in DPs from South America. He learned his trade in the much respected academy of Lanus before being given a lucrative contract by the Timbers. His 27 goals and 38 assists in 98 matches are impressive but perhaps more impressive is the leadership, humility and dedication that he brings to the side. In their victory over Vancouver he handed the second PK attempt over to Dairon Asprilla, a player that has lacked confidence following some early success at the club. Valeri has also been quick to help defuse escalating situations in the Cascadian rivalries, tried to enforce MLS’ “no crowding the ref” rule amongst his team, and has often shouldered criticism for poor results despite the fact that most of the shortcomings come on the defensive end.
Valeri has averaged 57 passes per match over the last three encounters and has a 75% completion rate in that time. Most of their positive play starts with him and he is responsible for taking a majority of their set pieces. He’s another example of being an easily identifiable strength but not and easily dealt with threat. He has been a joy to watch for the Timbers and he will certainly be a source of frustration for a group of Chicago central mids and center back still adjusting to the league and working on communication. If you come across anyone who says they wouldn’t take Valeri on their team in a heartbeat then you’ve found yourself a liar.
Believe in the System: We will let you make your own decision about Caleb Porter’s coaching ability and tactics but one thing that is inarguable is his ability to get his squad to understand the system that they will be working in. He has shifted from his preferred 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 in the last two matches due to absences and a slight dip in form from some of his players but we expect to see “the Porter” system back in place this weekend.
The common features of his system are two anchor center backs and two adventurous wingbacks that support in attack by providing crosses and work the touchline in the “4”, Valeri playing the Enganche role while two supporting mids rotate in and out of a holding position and provide late runs in the first “3”, two wide players whose versatility allows for comfort on the ball in the inside or outside channels and a target striker/clinical finisher in the middle for the front “3”. It hasn’t been the well-oiled machine that it was last year but you can bet most opponents have their fixture against Chicago circled on the calendar as a three point opportunity.
No Adi, No Problem: Timbers fans were visibly worried as Fanendo Adi walked off of the field against NYCFC in the 58th minute clutching his hamstring. Adi’s eight goals have accounted for over a third of the Timber’s tally this season and questions about a replacement were rampant. MLS journeyman Jack McInerney has alleviated some fears as he won a PK and scored his fourth goals this season in open play against Vancouver. He has averaged a goal every 2.5 shots on target and if Adi isn’t ready to go then the Jack of all trades will relish an opportunity to increase his season’s tally against Chicago, a feat he has achieved with Philadelphia and Montreal in the past.
Weaknesses: Defending Champions or not, eighth place is not acceptable for the Timbers. What’s worse is that bitter rival Seattle has two matches in hand and could relegate the Timbers to ninth place in the West by half time of the Portland’s match at Toyota Park. Let’s take a look at what is going wrong in the Rose City.
The New Adidas Sports Cane: Having allowed 24 goals in 13 matches the Timbers are part of a four way tie for the league’s worst goals against stat this season. Also of note, their center back pairing of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell has a combined age of 66. Those two statistics are probably not unrelated. While Borchers is a great leader and a prime example of a league veteran he is not the spryest player on the pitch. Ridgwell isn’t the quickest either and when you add the fact that he has spent the last two off seasons on loan in the English Championship you quickly realize he is starting to run out of steam.
Poorly timed tackles and petty fouls leading to needless free kicks have become routine for the pair over the last five matches with a rashly conceded PK from Ridgewell in their last match against Vancouver serving as the icing on the poor defending cake. Their lack of stability at the back has meant that Portland does not have a single clean sheet this season, something that a typically poor Chicago offense will look at with a sense of hope.
Paunovic’s new 4-3-3 formation and instructions to play on the counter might prove dangerous for the Timbers. “Give it to Accam” will once again be Chicago’s motto on Saturday. Let’s take a look at some of Portland’s recent defensive mistakes and how Chicago will look to get at them.
Vancouver at home (4-2 win): We already mentioned Ridgwell’s PK concession previously, an errant forearm across Octavio Rivero’s back, but his positioning and timing were also off as Kekutah Manneh was able to push forward time and time again in an open encounter. The initial goal came off of a shot that Borchers deflected over the outstretched hands of Jake Gleeson. While it wasn’t directly anyone’s fault, at times it seems as if bounces and luck aren’t on the Timbers’ side.
NYCFC at home (2-1 loss): Although there was a missed handball call on RJ Allen, the midfielder didn’t wait for the call and put in a beautifully placed ball to David Villa for a tidy finish. If your center backs are getting outrun by David Villa (a poacher, not a sprinter) then you have some serious issues. Tommy McNamara scored the game winner by adding yet another beautiful volley to his collection. You would think that scouting videos would have told Borchers and Ridgewell not to allow him that kind of space.
Dallas away (2-1 loss): Although Portland took the lead early they showed signs of faltering almost immediately. On one particular play in the 20th minute Ridgewell and Jermaine Taylor allowed not one, but two Dallas forwards to go unmarked between them before a great save from Gleeson denied Max Urruti a goal against his former team. Ryan Hollingshead would restore parity after a few unlucky bounces and some center back ball watching led to a toe poke past Gleeson. Walker Zimmerman notched the game winner just a minute later as he lost his defender to bury a corner into the back of the net with his head. We could keep analyzing matches but it would largely be more of the same, simple mistakes that clearly have Porter hot under the collar.
Lucas “Not Valeri” Melano: As much credit as the Timbers scouts deserve for finding Valeri, there’s someone who’s getting the stink eye for lining up a DP contract for Melano. The 23 year old DP has notched just one goal in 26 league appearances. A look that went beyond frustration was visible on the young Argentine’s face as he left the field in the 61st minute against Vancouver. A few early challenges and close shadowing from Chicago’s defense could take the kid out of the match picture.
“But Mommy I Don’t Want to Go to the Sleep Over”: Portland is really bad on the road. No, they’re not MLS Winless Road Record bad but they haven’t taken three points from any of their travels this season. Of their six road encounters they have lost four and drawn the other two. For whatever reason they can’t seem to get any flow going in those matches, their possession statistics are lower on the road (to be expected in MLS) but worryingly their pass completion rates go down on their travels as well. Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic have championed making Toyota Park a fortress as part of the FO’s “process”, two consecutive home wins would be a start.
Copa Centenario and Injuries: The downside of signing international quality players is that they will be called up from time to time. The Timbers will be missing Darlington Nagbe (USA) and Jermaine Taylor (Jamaica) as they head to their respective national team camps before the tournament. Caleb Porter might rue missing one of his most impactful creative players and a staple of his back line. He breathed a sigh of relief as Alvas Powell and Darren Mattocks were both dropped from the final 23 man Jamaica roster only to have both of them sustain injuries earlier this month. Stalwart keeper Adam Kwaresey and again, their leading goal scorer/leading assist provider Fanendo Adi will also be missing from Saturday’s fixture due to injury. Seeing a less than full strength Portland team sheet will only improve spirits n the Chicago camp.
Prediction: The atmosphere before the match will be cordial as Section 8 Chicago welcomes the visiting Timbers Army for the fifth annual Rock Against Racism concert but the mood inside the stadium will be tense as both teams look for a boost in the standings before an extended break. This will be the year that Chicago gets its first victory over Portland as the Timbers continue to struggle on the road. Chicago 2-0 Portland. The Chicago goal scorers: David Accam in behind a slow center back pairing for the first, and Johan Kappelhof continues to cement his place in the hearts of Fire supporters with a late header off of a corner.