Back to the grind stone for FC Dallas this week after a bitter, late loss on the road in Philadelphia. Flying in for a visit to Frisco is a scuttling Portland Timbers team that’s currently the worst team in the league. Yeah - Portland - Western Conference Champions last year…they have been awful. Portland comes in with one point on the season, in 12th place in the Western Conference. After the loss last week Dallas stays tied with Houston for 4th/5th place in the West with ten points on the season.
I had plans to look back at the end of last season, back to the playoffs, back to that ridiculous loss where Diego Valeri broke the hearts of all us. But that sentence covers everything really, so let’s move on. Portland would surely like to linger longer on those fond memories as the start to their season has been…unbelievable. First, they played the coldest, most ridiculous game, weather-wise, in MLS history when they drew with Colorado week 1 in a whiteout blizzard. And that’s the high for the season. Their low (probably) came last week when they lost to the previously worst team in the league, San Jose, 3-0.
Looking at the roster, we see many of the same names from years past. Diego Valeri is still the main man in the middle. The blunt force partnership of Diego Chara and David Guzman still backs the attack up. Dairon Asprilla and Sebastian Blanco occupy the wings. Last season saw the changing of the guard up top with Jeremy Ebobisse taking over the striker position, but he’s not new. Jorge Villafana and Larrys Mabiala are still in the back along with goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. The two main changes have been Mabiala’s partnership in central defense. Liam Ridgewell went back to England and in his place, Portland has rotated a cast of players to fill in. At the other full back spot, Portland brought in Jorge Moreira from River Plate to provide competition to Zarek Valentin, but each of those guys is a solid player. Guys on the bench include Andy Polo, Tomas Conechny, and Cristhian Paredes. After coach Giovanni Savarese installed a high possession style early last season – and it didn’t work – Portland found more success in a sit and counter approach. You would think that going into year two would see the team make positive gains in how they should play. That’s what makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is in Portland. I mean, this team is almost exactly the same team that went to MLS Cup last season. Sure, sticking with mostly the same roster is like sliding backwards in some ways, as everyone else strives to catch up. But on the flip side, continuity is something all teams strive for, especially very talented ones. In the end, I think last season’s end result was a bit of a reach for Portland, a best-case scenario. And right now is an outlier, a worst case scenario.
Or maybe history and reputation are playing tricks on me. After all, Portland has the worst goal differential in the league at minus 10. They’ve given up 15 goals through five games which puts them on pace for 102 (!) goals conceded. And being on pace to score a measly 35 goals would be their second lowest goals recorded number in team history. But it’s for those exact reasons that I’m not sure if what we are seeing is real. Sure, outlier seasons happen, but this is basically worse than Portland’s worst case. Besides all the historic implications mentioned above, this will also be their 6th straight road game - only midway through their season opening 12 game away stretch. That’s right, due to stadium renovations, Portland was scheduled to start the season on the road for 12 weeks, and then get 12 of their last 13 games at home. It’s like the extreme version of what D.C. United did last season.
Should we expect another three-goal blowout victory for the Hoops that everyone else has managed? I don’t think so. Not to take us back again, but remember how Dallas fared against league worst San Jose last year? Yeah, I’ve tried to forget too. All I’m saying is that this could be a dangerous team to play this weekend. They will be desperate to get a win and get their season back on track. Dallas will need the wings to have major impact as that has been where teams have made in roads against Portland. Well, that and penalties, but you can’t count on those. Michael Barrios getting around Villafana in the box is definitely a possibility, and from there he needs to send in some good passes to the middle or find his shooting boots. Paxton Pomykal and Bryan Acosta need to make some late runs and whoever is playing striker needs to be an adept poacher. Maybe this is the match we see Zdenek Ondrasek (aka Cobra) get the start.
Key Matchup: Carlos Gruezo vs Diego Valeri
It was always going to be Gruezo and Valeri in this spot. Valeri is still the ultimate no. 10 - capable of picking apart a defense with a killer pass or attacking the goal himself. He’s got one goal and three assists so far, involved in all but one of Portland’s five goals this season. He is the attack. Gruezo will have to put the clamps on him however he can.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Score Quickly - Portland has given up a goal within 15 minutes in four of their five games this season, and at least one goal in every single first half. If Dallas can find a goal early, it could break Portland before they have a chance.
2. Get Creative - In the final third that is. All the flowing movement and space tends to dry up as Dallas gets deeper into the final third and you often see multiple players standing statically instead of finding/creating space. Dynamic runs from the midfield from Paxton certainly help but learning to break down a compact defense will be critical as I am betting Portland tries to pack in the defense to help solve their woes.
3. Forget Last Week - In those infamous words from the great philosopher Pumbaa, “You’ve got to put your behind in the past.” Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Forget last week’s collapse. Learn from it and move on. Don’t get caught up in one result at the expense of the next one.
As you can tell, I’m a bit leery of this matchup. My mind is telling me to worry about a team that has been awful because, well, they aren’t supposed to be awful. But they have been so far this season and being on the road is tough. And FC Dallas have a bounce back game to play. I think we can win this game but seeing as how we have kept only one clean sheet all season, things will need to change. Factor in how putrid Portland has been on offense (but shouldn’t be), and how we haven’t had but one clean sheet (but we should have more) I’m going conservative with a final score of 1-0. Hakuna Matata.