After a big win in Vancouver last Sunday night, Dallas rolls into this week’s match against Portland looking to clinch a playoff spot at the expense of their Western Conference foe.
Portland currently sit fourth place in the Western Conference with 47 points. They are three points ahead of sixth place Seattle and six points above the LA Galaxy and the red line for the playoffs. A win against Dallas would not move them up the standings as they are three points behind LAFC, but a loss could see them tumble down to fifth or a tie for sixth.
The three points Dallas picked up in Vancouver helped them reclaim the Western Conference lead and they now have 53 points on the season. Sporting KC are still close behind in second with 51 points and LAFC are also a win away from tying the Hoops as they have 50 points. Supporter’s Shield dreams will be done and dusted as Dallas are 10 points back of league leading Atlanta, who have 63 points. But don’t give up just yet, Dallas can still become the first club in league history to secure three seasons of 60 points in a four-year span.
Since the last meeting between these two teams, much has changed – and then again, much has stayed the same. Way back in March I started off the Portland preview at a loss with how to present them to you. Back then, Portland was still feeling out their new coach and his tactics. They were integrating a few new players into the fold while also dealing with a few injuries to important pieces. Fast forward a few months and…Portland is still trying to sort some things out tactics wise, dealing with integrating new pieces, and missing a few key players to injury.
(cue Dave Matthews Band)
The space between - has been a rollercoaster ride. After a lackadaisical start to the season where they lost three of their first five games, Portland went on an EPIC run, winning 10 of their next 15 matches in MLS play with only draws interspersed between. But since then they have gone 3-6-1 and appear to have reverted to their early season form. So again, is Portland the team we faced way back in March, still working out how to defend as a unit, how to create good chances, how to play as a team? Or are they the giant from the middle of the season, taking a quick breathier before the playoffs start up?
One thing that has changed for the Timbers is the formation. After starting out in a standard 4-2-3-1, Portland has moved more into a 4-3-2-1 (tree formation, how fitting). This change allowed the team to sit deeper and absorb pressure better while still having space to get up the flanks on the counter. Stylistically, we can expect Portland to sit back and counter although as they search for a new winning formula, bringing out a high press just to try and mix things up would be a smart move. Everything still runs through Diego Valeri, who sits in the middle, orchestrating the show. His 10 goals and 10 assists on the season pace the team in both statistics. Off-season signee Samuel Armenteros has 9 goals on the season but is on an eight-match scoreless streak. The off-season also brought in winger/midfielder Andy Polo, who at this point, is probably being described as the Cristian Coleman of Portland, except he gets more playing time. Polo has one goal on the season and two assists – probably not the numbers Timber’s Army were hoping for when he signed. He’s quick out on the wing but has yet to really translate his potential into impact. We fortunately will not be seeing his other wing partner, Sebastian Blanco, due to card accumulation.
Locking down the midfield is Diego Chara. His absence at the beginning of the campaign almost certainly caused most of their issues in defense and his return helped kick start that big run in the ensuing months. Chara needs no introduction of course as he his simply one of the best defensive mids in the league. His partnership with David Guzman (plus Valeri) gives Portland one of the strongest midfields of any team. Guzman on the other hand, plays the Ulloa role in Portland, serving as a link from the back line to the attack.
The real concern lately from Portland has been the questions coming from the back line. Larrys Mabiala has been the only consistent defender in the back this year. Portland started the season with Liam Ridgewell as his partner before turning to new signing Julio Cascante for most of the summer. But Ridgewell has started the last two games and picked up a few games in the weeks before as well. With an unsettled center back pairing, a lot can go wrong for a team’s defense.
To further bolster their defense Portland went out on August 8 and picked up USMNT outside back Jorge Villafana. His presence gives Portland an experienced outside defender who can get up the line and contribute in attack. On the other side, expect to see Zarek Valentin, who has started all but two games this season. Steve Clark is the current keeper minding the net as Portland has had an injury bug hit their other rostered keepers.
Key Matchup: Dominique Badji vs Liam Ridgewell (or Julio Cascante)
This is exactly the type of game for Badji or Urruti to take advantage of a misfiring defense. Ridgewell is under fire from the fan base for his nonchalance defending last game, but he replaced Cascante after a run of ineffectiveness from him. Dallas fans know first hand how one central defender not being good enough can mess up a game or even season. Opportunity awaits for Badji to get back on the score sheet in this one.
1. Clean Sheet – Once again, and with more effort! Dallas needs to work out its goal leakage problem. I’m not here sounding an alarm or anything, this is a mild worry. But the ability to put teams away by simply not allowing them to score is a handy trick when the playoffs role around, one that Dallas had seemingly mastered during the first half of the season. They need to reclaim that super strength.
2. Attacking Pieces – Dallas put in a good effort last week in Vancouver, but still had to rely on a Captain Hedges flying header to put the game away late. For all the attacking talent we talk about – and other teams talk about – Dallas isn’t putting much of it together. This game needs two goals from people not paid to defend.
3. Clinch It – As in, a playoff spot, not…never mind. I know Dallas can make the playoffs without winning this game, but it would be nice to just go ahead and take care of things ourselves. Dallas, don’t rely on other hopeless teams to help you out.
As is usual, I am probably overly optimistic about the Hoops chances in this game. But darn it if the fight to win in Vancouver didn’t just say it all. This team has heard about last season all summer. Every missed opportunity was a chance to remind them, every wasted point (or three) was a referendum. But when push came to shove up in Canada, Dallas picked itself up and got the job done. This team IS different from last year, they WILL fight to the end. That kind of character can take a team far beyond its base quality, past it’s so called “ceiling.” I’m not going to call a MLS Cup win right now – but this team has the tools required to get the job done. Starting with a 1-0 win in Portland.