Both Portland Timbers and FC Dallas were present in the Western Conference Finals just under five months ago, but their starts to the 2016 season have been very different up until now. FCD sit in third in the Western and overall standings with 11 points while Portland have just five points from as many games. Despite that though, neither side is really going into this fixture in form with FCD on a two-game winless streak and Portland not having won since the opening game.
Aside from the lack of form both teams will go into this fixture with, there are also injury problems to consider on both ends. Portland will be missing Liam Ridgewell and Darlington Nagbe while there are also doubts over the fitness of Dairon Asprilla who missed the weekend draw at LA Galaxy. While on the other side, FCD are still sweating over the availability of Mauro Diaz, who missed the last two outings, as their only serious injury worry as of now.
Red hot Adi
Even though Timbers' season hasn't quite gone according to plan so far, there's no doubt that things are very different for Fanendo Adi who's joint top scorer in the league with four in five games to date. His blistering form in front of goal already makes him a big enough threat, but his eleven chances created and 49% of duels won according to Squawka stats in 2016 as shown below, means that he'll pose several problems with his physique and creativity for the FCD back line. Just as he did in the Western Conference Finals last November.
Oscar Pareja has a choice to make when it comes to picking Matt Hedges' central defensive partner this game to try and deal with the threat that Adi brings. He could go with either Walker Zimmerman who's strong and good in the air or Zach Loyd who is a superior ground defender and has a bit more pace to compensate for Hedges' lack thereof. Arguments can be formed for both to start, but considering that Adi's physique is the hardest part to combat about him, it may make more sense for Zim to get the nod over Loyd.
Tough nut to crack
Portland had been a mess defensively with nine goals allowed in the first four matches, but Caleb Porter's changes after the Orlando defeat oversaw a big improvement for them at the back against LA as they produced a performance of the caliber of the ones that saw them win the MLS Cup last fall. 34-year old Jack Jewsbury started for the first time this year alongside Diego Chara and Diego Valeri was moved up to play behind Adi in a 4-2-3-1 formation rather than their usual 4-3-3. This meant that they had two players protecting and sitting in front of the defense, which is why LA struggled to create much through the middle and only managed to score via a cross that was unluckily headed into his own net by Nat Borchers.
I've chosen below to highlight not only Sunday's defensive contributions of the defensive midfield pairing of Jewsbury and Chara and how well they cover the central spaces in front of Borchers and Jermaine Taylor, but also the fullbacks Alvas Powell and Chris Klute who will be tasked with the challenge of stopping FCD's dangerous wingers.
(Green - successful tackles, Red - tackles lost, Blue - interceptions, Purple - clearances, Orange - recoveries)
As you can see, the amount of defensive actions from the quartet was quite high on Sunday and it shows just how difficult it will be for FCD to break them down, with or without Diaz in the team. Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo have struggled so far this year against deep defensive lines so it's quite possible that trend continues here.
If Pareja opts to start without a playmaker once again in the possible absence of Diaz, FCD will look to the wide players to step up in his play and make the difference. It won't be easy against a Portland team that defends well between the lines and don't give much away, but some big performances from the fullbacks and Colombian wingers will be necessary if Dallas is to walk away from Portland with three points in hand.
Valeri the creative force
Anyone who knows their stuff about MLS knows that Valeri is the heartbeat of this Portland team and has been for over three years now. His all-round abilities and versatility is what makes him one of the best midfielders in the league and why he's pinpointed as the biggest threat for any team that comes up against the Timbers. Everything goes through him and it's not hard to understand why.
Valeri's passing dashboard against LA Galaxy:
(Dark Blue - successful passes, Light Blue - chances created, Red - failed passes, Yellow - goal assist)
The graphic above makes it evident just how influential and involved Valeri is in the thick of the action when Portland go forward. 26 successful passes of 35 in total shows that he is an adept passer of the ball while his presence all around the attacking half underline his intelligent movement off the ball and his abilities to make plays from anywhere on the pitch.
This wasn't even one of his best games this year yet the mark he left on it is clear for all to see so it's obvious that trying to stop him is a thankless task. That's exactly what makes him one of the best at what he does in MLS and why man marking him is a waste of time. Defending against him as a unit is the key to limiting his impact on the game, something that Dallas have shown at times this year that they can do albeit not on an inconsistent basis as of yet.
Portland are a team that can mix it between defending as a unit, playing physically, and passing the ball but they've struggled offensively which is what makes Adi's displays so far in 2016 so impressive. Nagbe will be a big miss for them in that sense as he is one of the few that could drive the team on that end. FCD will need more from their South American wingers regardless of Diaz's availability for this game as hoping to break the Portland defense that we saw against LA will be a hard task.
Creating chances is not a strength that FCD possess without the Argentine, but with or without him, the best route to a good result is by improving on the defensive side of things where the team has been less than convincing lately. Playing against the in-form Adi as well as Valeri and Melano may have come at the wrong time for an FCD back line still trying to find its best version, but through discipline and full commitment, it is possible that the team could shut down a Portland team that's struggling to create chances as of late themselves.
With both teams facing problems with injuries and lacking in creativity as of late, this one may well end in a stalemate unless there is a big performance from some of the most talented players that will be on display.