It’s Team Diego. Team Lumberjack. Merritt Paulson. Gio Savarese. Timbers Army. Here we go:
In 2020, the Portland Timbers won the MLS is Back tournament and then finished the season 3rd in the Western Conference with a record of 11-6-6... before being knocked out of the playoffs by our very own FC Dallas. The pre-season predictions estimate that they will show similarly this season – unless Father Time catches up with them. And I’m not going to lie... when I think about Portland, I start wondering how old they are. Personalities around MLS harp on their ages. Diego Chara is 35. Diego Valeri is 34. Sebastian Blanco is 33. Yimmi Chara is 30. But...then there are a bunch of younger guys who can ball.
Portland has already played five competitive games this season. They bested CD Marathon 7-2 on aggregate before the 1-0 loss to Vancouver on opening day. Last weekend, the Timbers beat Houston 2-1 with a line-up that featured several second stringers as they rested Valeri and other starters ahead of their midweek match-up with Club American – a 1-1 affair that featured a pair of PKs.
I’m going to focus on the Houston game because I think it’s more indicative of what we face. The Houston game featured many opportunities for Portland down the stretch as first-stringers were substituted late in the game. But Portland relied – successfully – on their depth. Felipe Mora’s assist to an onrushing Chrisian Paredes was a thing of beauty. Young Venezuelan right-back Pablo Bonilla had a great game. But neither Sebastian Blanco nor Jeremy Ebobisse has featured yet for the Cascadia side. They are in the midst of a stretch of five games in fifteen days this is an early test of their depth.
So what’s coming?
It’s no secret that Dallas hasn’t performed well in the first two games – and these were games against opposition unlikely to finish top of the standings. Most observers look at Portland’s opening game against Vancouver and see a Portland team with tired legs that struggled. So they rotated against Houston. As they arrive in Dallas this week, I expect to see heavy squad rotation again as they prepare for the second leg with Club America at the Azteca in Mexico City next week and a significant fixture against Seattle the following weekend.
In the interest of saving those older legs for midweek action, Savarese gave a first-ever MLS start to Homegrown Blake Bodily at the top of the 4-2-3-1 and rested Felipe Mora. Similarly, he shifted Yimmi Chara from the wing to the 10. Dairon Asprilla started on the left (Blanco has not yet returned from a torn ACL suffered last summer and Ebobisse has a lingering hamstring issue) and scored the opening goal. Marvin Loria was active on the right before making way for Valeri at halftime as Yimmi Chara moved back to the wing. Let me note that defensively, this front four drops into more of a 4-4-2 with the 9 & 10 pressing but the wingers dropping back.
In the midfield, Eryk Williams started against Club America which means that Paredes will probably return against Dallas as he did against Houston. Diego Chara, despite his years, seems likely to start in his defensive midfield position – but he could also be rested in favor of Zambrano if Savarese prioritizes upcoming games.
Defensively, Portland brought in Claudio Bravo from Guadalajara to play on the left and he has done so in every game thus far. Houston’s Tyler Pasher had the best of Bravo several times, so this too may be an opportunity for Savarese to rest a player and push the Timbers’ other signing (Josecarlos Van Rankin) to the left side and give Bonilla another shot on the right after his standout performance against Houston. In the middle of the defense, the manager gave regular starters Zuparic and Mabiala 45 minutes each last week with backup Bill Tuiloma playing a full game. I expect to see that again. Keeper Steve Clark was injured in the Vancouver game and Jeff Attinella has filled in for both the Houston match and fixture with America.
My best guess at a starting eleven?
Aprilla – Y. Chara – Loria
Paredes – D. Chara
Van Rankin – Tuiloma – Mabiala – Bonilla
But I expect heavy rotation at halftime.
Keys to the Match:
- I hate when commentators say obvious things – like Dallas needs to finish their chances. But Dallas will have chances in this match – there were many moments in transition against Houston when the Dynamo had opportunities and couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. Dallas needs to do better. Freddy Vargas and Jader Obrian need to show why Picault and Barrios were let go in favor of them. There should be plenty of tired legs for Portland, so we need to attack that.
- Asprilla has started the year solidly in place of Blanco. If Mora and Valeri play limited minutes, then much of the responsibility for scoring may fall to him. While he has already played significant minutes this season Portland has limited depth at the moment because of injuries. Defenders will need to mark him in the box - but maybe this is a good opportunity for Dallas to return to the 4-3-3 and press a midfield that should be struggling with early season fitness and heavy minutes.
- Portland’s tale of 2020 was a series of late-game errors – case in point: Pepi’s goal in the playoffs. Savarese will probably sub several starters in at the end of the match if the score is close, so Dallas needs to be prepared for late moments of brilliance from Valeri and Mora (10 goals, 5 assists last year in Liga MX).
Tell me what you think.