What Are They All About? Portland Timbers
Top of the League. This past Saturday the Chicago Fire dispatched the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-0 to climb to the top of the Supporters Shield standings. The performance saw them combine in ways that were truly beautiful to watch and the team left the field with a plethora of positives. Dax McCarty and David Accam were both missing on international duty and the team succeeded without them, Michael DeLeeuw finally scored his first goal of the season after being arguably the hardest working forward in the squad, it was their twelfth clean sheet across all competitions this season, and the match was their fifth of the season that was won by at least a three-goal margin. Chicago will look to build on those milestones this coming Wednesday as they visit the Portland Timbers at Providence Park (9:30 CT on CSN Chicago).
The Timbers had an up and down June and will be looking to add some consistency to their results in July. Caleb Porter has his side ticking like a well-oiled machine on the offensive side of the ball, but they continue to struggle defensively. Wednesday provides an opportunity to put all of those struggles behind them and continue a great home winning streak but Chicago will have plans of their own. Will it be the bearded, brett rum barrel aged coffee IPA drinking, hand rolled cigarette smoking, freegan eating, dumpster diving, co-op shopping, French bulldog dressing, “I saw them before they recorded their first album” declaring, distressed leather back pack carrying, triple bike lane advocating, DIY outfit making hipsters in Green and Gold, or those in Red and White who come out of this one with something to celebrate? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Portland Form Guide (last five league matches): D-D-L-LW
Previous Result: A 1-1 away draw against Sporting Kansas City.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Gleeson, Vytas, Miller, Olum, Powell; Zemanski, Nagbe; Blanco, Valeri, Asprilla; Adi
Strengths: Having won the MLS Cup in 2015, the Portland Timbers had an awful season in 2016, finishing two points outside of the playoffs and allowing more goals than anyone else in the Western Conference. This season has largely been about showing that such a dip in form was a fluke and that the Timbers truly belong in the upper echelon of MLS. Let’s take a look at how they’re succeeding in that.
Yo Voy Hacer Gancho: You know him, you love him, he’s MLS’ favorite Enganche, Diego Valeri. The Lanus youth product has consistently performed at the highest levels in soccer and is quietly making a case for being one of the best signings in the league’s history. He isn’t as flashy as Beckham, as suave as Henry, or as sly as Villa, but statistically speaking he is the heart and soul of the Timbers. Forty-nine goals and fifty-two assists in one-hundred and forty-two appearances would put him at the top of most clubs’ all-time records, but Valeri’s impact cannot be measured purely by those stats.
His commitment to the city as whole can be seen in his frequent attendance to Portland Thorns matches, continued involvement with the Timbers Stand Together outreach program (beyond team requirements), and his promise to retire as a Timber. Four goals in the last six matches (including a wonder goal against SKC on Saturday) reiterates his prowess but the bigger picture reveals that a man playing for his club, city, and the supporters he has dubbed his new family is indeed a sturdy obstacle.
Mercenary Success: Amid talks of his imminent departure in 2016 (the rumor was Tigres), Fanendo Adi seemed to hit a slump that drastically affected the way the Timber’s season turned out. Pouting, pointing fingers, and a missed opportunity to increase his salary were among the features of the deal falling through, but many positives have come out of Adi being forced to see out the remainder of his three-year contract renewal with Portland. Adi hasn’t become a fan favorite or a poster boy for the city like Valeri, but his search for new heights means he will have to continue to perform at the highest level if he wants an upgrade in the future.
Fifty-two career goals with the Timbers means that he is their all-time leading goal scorer, but he won’t be satisfied with the nine goals he’s tallied in this campaign when the MLS golden boot bar has been raised to its current height by Nikolic. Aerial ability, hold up play, strength, the knack for scoring from anywhere, and a Matrix like capability to slow the Timbers fast tempo style down instantaneously to pick out the corner of the net means that Chicago will have their hands full.
There’s No Pity in the Rose City: Perhaps the visiting Chicago players have been too busy checking out Voodoo Donuts, Powell’s bookstore, the best beer scene in the country, or locals riding on unicycles in Darth Vader helmets, but Chicago has yet to win a competitive match against Portland. The Fire have lost on four occasions and drawn the other three meetings between the two sides. This year has seen a lot of firsts for Chicago, but the Pacific Northwest has not been kind to them in general and Portland boasts a fantastic home record this season. They have lost just one of their nine home matches and that was against Western Conference leading Kansas City. It will take something special to take three points at Providence Park.
Weaknesses: The revival is not entirely complete as there have been many moments of mediocrity from the Timbers this season. They currently find themselves as close to sixth as they are to first and the next few matches will be crucial in signifying their intent. Let’s see where they might fail on Wednesday.
The Calendar Doesn’t Lie: Despite the aforementioned strengths, the Timbers have just won win in their last five league matches and were ousted from the US Open Cup in the third round by Seattle. Additionally, many of those dropped points have come on the back of lapses in concentration or individual mistakes amidst good performances. All three of their most recent matches were head scratching in their own way.
Taking the lead against SKC saw Portland go into their shell and concede possession and the shot count to the home team in the second half resulting in a missed opportunity to climb within touching distance of the Conference leaders. Portland was up a man against Seattle an entire half and couldn’t make their advantage count as Clint Dempsey’s late heroics meant they had to share the points at Providence Park. The Minnesota match was also an anomaly as the Timbers fell behind three time to lose against one of the worst teams in the league. Caleb Porter has called the last three matches a learning opportunity but if they continue to make the same mistakes Chicago will ensure that the lesson continues.
Carelessness and Inconsistency at the Back: The biggest area of need for the Timbers in the offseason was clearly the backline, specifically at center back. Aging legs, frequent injuries, ludicrous decision making, and suspensions plagued Portland’s back line for much of last season. They thought they had it figured out when they signed Gbenga Arokoyo from Gaziantepspor in Turkey last August. An Achilles tear at the beginning of the season means that he’ll miss the entire campaign for Portland. Additionally, Caleb Porter set his sights on signing another replacement, Larrys Mabiala, from Kayserispor but could not get the deal done in the initial window. The Turkish side was in the middle of a relegation battle and could not do without his services, rendering the Timbers helpless until the window opens on July 10th and he can officially participate in matches.
The lack of healthy and timely signings means that Amobi Okugo, Lawrence Olum, and Liam Ridgewell have shouldered most of the central defensive responsibilities this season when they’re healthy. However, that has not been the case consistently and the Timbers have featured more than five different center back pairing this season (three in the last three matches). That type of fluidity has seen them drop to the fourth worst defensive record in the league with twenty-nine goals allowed. Were it not for the horrendous form of RSL and Minnesota the Timbers would be in all too familiar territory.
Olum looks well past his prime and was responsible for a number of careless tackles against Kansas, not to mention that his pace has gone by the wayside without being adequately replaced by smarter positioning. Okugo is a journeyman defender at best, and Ridgewell is ever closer to retirement. Nemanja Nikolic, Michael DeLeeuw, and Lucho Solignac will certainly be looking forward to this match.
Missing Pieces: Although missing players is a typical feature of MLS due to the physical nature of the league and the mind-boggling decisions of referees and the disciplinary committee, Portland will be especially hobbled by the lack of availability in their roster. Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell, Amobi Okugo, Jack Barmby, and Chance Myers are all in doubt for the match on Wednesday, while David Guzman has departed for Costa Rica’s Gold Cup training camp. Alvas Powell and Darren Mattocks have also been called in for their respective national teams. Those absences mean that Caleb Porter’s struggles at center back and holding mid will be exacerbated against Chicago, a team that you certainly don’t want to face at less than full strength.
Prediction: Ninety-degree weather on turf amidst a three-game road swing is not ideal. The Fire are a great team but hiccups occur in every season. Chicago 1-1 Portland. Michael DeLeeuw continues his scoring form in a hard-fought draw.