Three problems the Timbers can fix against Austin FC

by Charlie Folkestad
Dairon Asprilla against LAFC

The Portland Timbers nearly escaped Banc of California Stadium with a win Sunday night. A stoppage time goal by center back Mamadou Fall leveled the tie after Portland held on with 10 men for half an hour.

Portland struggled against LAFC. Gone were the open, free-flowing movements and combinations that gave the defending Supporters’ Shield winners fits in week one. Instead, Portland struggled to create any meaningful bite going forward, save for yet another bicycle kick by Yimmi Chara.

So what are the Timbers’ biggest (on-field) problems? How will this team get back to creating chances like they were against New England (particularly in the second half)?

Problem #1: Discipline

Questions about the severity of Claudio Bravo’s second yellow card are warranted, but everyone can agree that it was a poor gamble for someone already on a yellow. The Timbers have a league-high 10 yellow cards over their first two matches, while no other club has more than seven.

Those 10 do not include a pair of cautions to Gio Savarese, one in each match. If Savarese gets another yellow, MLS rules state he will have to pay a fine and miss the next match.

I’m not necessarily saying this is a Gio problem, but it is certainly a problem. Bravo’s yellow forced the Timbers to park the bus for the rest of the night, even without Carlos Vela on the pitch. MLS is a tough-enough test on squad depth already; adding suspensions to the mix only worsens things.

And if we know anything about the Timbers’ most important player (Diego Chara), he will be receiving at least five yellow cards at some point this season — the first threshold for suspension.

Type of Cautions Number of Cautions
Foul 6
Dissent 3
Persistent Infringement 1

(Numbers via MLS)

Discipline is inherently self-imposed. There hasn’t been enough matches to say how this relates to Austin FC. For what it’s worth, they drew two yellow cards against FC Cincinnati and four against Inter Miami CF.

Problem #2: Buildup play

Portland threatened New England’s goal in the season opener. They struggled to do anything against LAFC. The chart on the left is from the New England match; LAFC match on the right.

Three things stand out to me about these charts:

  1. Outside back involvement is a good indicator of how little the Timbers went forward against LAFC.
  2. Niezgoda was completely on an island against LAFC. 
  3. The center backs were not on the same page offensively against LAFC, despite their heroic defensive efforts.

Everyone from Ivacic to Niezgoda needs to be better in buildup. That means moving off the ball and giving more technical attention to controlling and passing the ball.

Timbers Statistics vs NE vs LAFC
Pass Completion Rate 80.1% 68.1%
Possession 55% 33%
Expected Goals 2.5 0.7

(Numbers via Football Reference)

Portland were down a man, yes, but they couldn’t complete a pass against LAFC. The home team created 17 shots to Portland’s two in the second half.

Austin are goal-hungry. They have an MLS-record 10 goals in two matches, albeit against weak opponents. Portland can’t afford to concede possession and operate strictly from a counterattacking approach.

Problem #3: Goalscoring

This might be a hot take, but Portland cannot rely solely on Yimmi Chara bicycle kicks for goals. With Felipe Mora out for another month or so, Jaroslaw Niezgoda needs to get on the scoresheet in the next month.

Niezgoda was basically invisible against LAFC. Some pointed out that this wasn’t the best matchup for him tactically, but that means he needs to adapt his game. The Timbers are staring down a “Dairon Asprilla at striker” situation if they can’t get things going soon.

Against Austin FC, that means taking the fight to them. The “Verde” have been at home both times, so it will be interesting to see how they respond in a tough road environment.

Stay composed in possession and get chaotic in the final third.

The Timbers can’t “fix” injuries. They just have to wait to get healthier. Savarese said both Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala could be back as soon as this weekend — they’re not expected to start, but getting closer. Eryk Williamson is also farther back than we thought on his recovery.

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