The Portland Timbers have slowed down since their recent three-game win spurt, and now face two of the best squads in Major League Soccer over the next two weeks: the Philadelphia Union and LAFC. Saturday’s match in Philadelphia will be Portland’s final road match before the new-and-improved Providence Park opens its gates on June 1st vs LAFC.Portland ground out a point at Houston last Wednesday thanks to a stellar debut and goal by new Designated Player signing Brian Fernández. While Fernández only came on in the 65th minute, he was clearly an immediate upgrade from Andy Polo on the right side of the attack. Polo actually had a decent match—nearly creating a cheeky assist for Sebastián Blanco in the 16th minute—but Fernández proved to be a direct threat as soon as he stepped onto the pitch for Portland.
The Union are off to a blistering start to the first third of the season, earning an Eastern Conference-best 24 points from 13 matches, including seven wins in their last 10. Their most recent match was a scoreless draw against second-place Seattle. Despite controlling two-thirds of the possession and out-shooting the Sounders 20-6, the Union were unable to get the ball into Stefan Frei’s net (sound familiar?). Regardless, it was an impressive performance against the second-best team in the league this year.Philadelphia operates in a 4-4-2 diamond, with the forwards and wings pressing against the back line and attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson pressuring the holding midfielder. Portland must be able to either pass through this press or find ways to win headers in the midfield and recover possession. The speed of Fernández is certainly an important factor here, but the passing deft of the back line and holding midfield will be the difference going forward.The Union could have an emerging star in Aaronson, but most of the goal production has come from 26-year-old forward Kacper Przybylko, who has scored three goals in just six appearances for the Union so far, and has arguably been Philly’s best player since entering the lineup. The German-born Pole will impose both his size and quick passing skill to try and break Portland’s back line.It will be crucial for Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma to not get stretched too wide and track Przybylko’s sporadic runs throughout the attacking third. This also requires defensive tracking from the wide backs, which was a lingering issue in the match against Houston.
Philly’s diamond can also be vulnerable to wide play, so getting Jorge Moreira and Jorge Villafaña (or Zarek Valentin) forward to combine with the midfield is crucial. If Fernández is placed in the midfield, Diego Valeri will take over more defensive responsibilities than usual. Fernández could start for Ebobisse up top, though, and Flores or Polo would retain the right midfield spot, where they have both been solid defensively.Moreira has shown his ability to get crosses off in the attacking half, but his defensive positioning has given the Timbers problems. In the last match alone, Moreira lost his man frequently, inciting a goal in the first half and multiple near-breakaway chances in the second. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Zarek Valentin starting for Moreira at right back, especially if Fernandez is in the starting XI.Fernández scored the tying goal just 12 minutes into his debut, and his movement into wide spaces almost earned the Timbers a winner eight minutes later. He poses a legitimate threat to any back line, and will likely get the start on Saturday over Polo or Andrés Flores.Elsewhere in the lineup, Cristhian Paredes will not be available, meaning Renzo Zambrano would most likely take his place in the central midfield, but he is already with the Venezuelan National Team. Zambrano filled in surprisingly well for the suspended Diego Chará last week, showing great passing and organizational ability for the majority of the match—Renzo completed 38 passes at 86% accuracy, including 6/6 accurate long balls.https://twitter.com/RenzoZambrano_/status/1131741427942211584The biggest mystery about Giovanni Savarese’s starting lineup, though, may be at usually the most predictable position: goalkeeper. Last week, Jeff Attinella was great between the sticks, saving eight shots—six of which were from inside the 18. Jeff still struggled with distributing the ball, but his performance was solid nonetheless. Steve Clark has been just as good when called upon, so it appears to be a toss-up for this weekend.
Prediction: 2-1 Philadelphia
Philadelphia pose a unique threat for the Timbers. What they lack in raw star power, they make up for in their chemistry and execution. Any points for the Timbers are fine in this match. It’s been a gruesome and polarizing 12-match road trip (which, by the way, is the longest in MLS history). There have been zero clean sheets, a win streak, an even longer losing streak, and a blizzard. This may end up looking like the most disappointing stretch of the season, but it has still set the Timbers up to fight from behind for the rest of the year.
Tactical Keys for Portland’s success:
- Breaking Philly’s Press
- Attacking wide spaces
- Staying organized defensively
- Time: Saturday, May 25th, 2019 @ 4:30 p.m. PT
- Location: Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, PA, USA
- TV: Root Sports (local), ESPN+ (national)
- Radio: 750 AM/102.9 FM The Game
- Odds from Bovada (as of 5/23): Philadelphia -165, Draw +300, Portland +390