The Portland Timbers will face the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night in the first of two MLS is Back Tournament semifinal matchups.
Rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson released the album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ on February 6th, 2003. Its third track isn’t the best on the project, but it does serve as our metaphor for today’s preview.
You’ll have to patiently wait until the end for it, however.
Remaining MLSiBT Matches
Portland Timbers vs Philadelphia Union
Wednesday, August 5th, 2020 @ 5pm PT
Watch on Fox Sports 1
Orlando City SC vs Minnesota United FC
Thursday, August 6th, 2020 @ 5pm PT
Watch on ESPN2
Final: Portland/Philadelphia vs Orlando/Minnesota
Tuesday, August 11th, 2020 @ 5:30pm PT
Watch on ESPN
Portland earned seven points from Group F. By defeating both the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo by scores of 2-1, the Timbers secured a spot in the knockout round before their final group match against high-powered LAFC, which was drawn 2-2.
The Timbers nearly stumbled against Cinderella side FC Cincinnati in the round of 16, needing penalty kicks to atone for Steve Clark’s mental lapse that gifted FCC a goal. Portland then pulled out their most convincing performance yet in the quarterfinals against NYCFC, earning a 3-1 win despite going down 1-0 in the first half.
Philadelphia had an eerily-similar journey as Portland to the semifinals: After earning six points against NYCFC and Inter Miami, a 1-1 draw against Orlando City saw the Union advance to the knockout stage as second-place finishers from Group A.
The Union scraped by Eastern Conference counterparts New England 1-0 in the round of 16 before beating Sporting Kansas City in a convincing 3-1 performance.
Now, as two of the hottest teams left in the competition, Portland and Philly are ready to run it back in the semifinals. One can’t predict what the final score will be, but we can anticipate differences in tactical styles.
Philly have found success breaking teams down from the right side of their attack. This means Portland will have to get Sebastián Blanco, who will likely start on the left, more involved in the defending half. Timbers fans will know that Blanco’s starting winger spot is more of a suggestion than anything; he often finds space anywhere he can in the attacking half. Portland’s left side of defense (Dario Župarić and Jorge Villafaña on the back line; Eryk Williamson as the holding midfielder) are ill-equipped to deal with overloads, so expect the Timbers to hug their back line or switch holding mids to nullify Philly’s attacking motions.
But the key for Portland winning this match is in the transition from defense to offense. Portland will likely let Philly have most of the ball and the Timbers will compress into a 4-4-2-ish defensive block. The counterattacking wit of the midfield will be crucial for Portland scoring; the only goals Philly have conceded thus far have been from headers while in a low block (Orlando; SKC) or a counter (Miami).
Another relevant note: As in the quarterfinals, Portland will have two less days of rest than their opponents (Philly played on July 30th; Portland played on August 1st). We saw the Timbers fatigued early on against NYCFC before growing into the game physically, and I expect a similar pattern in this match. Thankfully, Portland seized control against City to get more substitutes in and out, as well as rested Diego Valeri for the entire first half. Essentially, this is another reason to expect Portland to sit back and defend for the better part of the first half (at least).
When the Timbers do have the ball, they will probably be content with knocking it around the back and patiently waiting for defensive lapses to exploit. I would also not be surprised to see Jarosław Niezgoda start at forward over Jeremy Ebobisse to give the Timbers a larger target up top. Although Jebo has had an impressive tournament, his dynamic runs and quick decisions may not be as useful as Niezgoda’s experience and poaching in this match.
As with everything you just read, however, I could be completely wrong. Such is the nature of soccer.
“Patiently Waiting” includes tenacious flows from 50 Cent and his “favorite white boy,” Eminem. The chorus is a growling escalation that explodes into verses when provoked. Topics include 50 and Em’s respective places in the rap industry: “waiting for tracks to explode on” /“feels like my flow’s been hot for so long”.
Believe it or not, the Timbers are in a similar position. While they certainly aren’t at the top of the league when it comes to quality, the Timbers could send a message to the rest of the league with a good performance against Philly (or, better yet, in the final). They may have to sit patiently and wait for an opening in order to score, but the opportunities will present themselves.
Perched between a “good” and “classic” album in the context of hip-hop, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is widely considered to be 50 Cent’s magnum opus. While Portland’s hypothetical triumph in the MLSiBT (let me indulge) wouldn’t be very momentous within the entire context of Major League Soccer’s 25-year history, it could certainly project them back into “household name” status within the league.
Remember the days when the Timbers absolutely needed to be mentioned in a discussion of MLS’s best teams? Those days can come back, and they might be closer than we think. Just remember, you can’t rush these conversations. The Timbers have to prove it first.