It's been a while since we did a question exchange with another MLS blog here at SB Nation. Ahead of today's match against the Portland Timbers, we here at Once a Metro talked to Stumptown Footy (SF) and their Managing Editor, William Conwell, the Portland blog to take a look at the New York Red Bulls' next match.
OaM: The Red Bulls have visited Portland twice since the Timbers joined MLS. Both times resulted in crazy 3-3 draws. What would it mean for the team to notch a win against New York at home?
SF: At the most basic level it would mean that the Timbers could potentially move back into striking position for a top four finish and grab a key home game in the playoffs. Moreover, a win could put some distance back between the Timbers and the seventh place San Jose Earthquakes, a gap that the 'Quakes have been chipping away at for some time.
It would also mean that the Timbers have scored at least one goal. That might not sound like much, but after putting up 38 shots in their last two games, many of which were serious scoring opportunities, the Timbers have only scored one goal total in their recent matches against the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. Quality chances just keep coming, but through a combination of excellent games from Stefan Frei and Tim Melia, and the Timbers not quite getting the quality of finishing that they need, the Timbers are having a very difficult time getting on the board.
So, what would a win against the Red Bulls mean for the Timbers? That is is against the Red Bulls: not much. That is a win, however, could set the trajectory for the rest of the Timbers' season. The pressure is on in Portland and this team needs to produce.
OaM: Aside from a stretch of wins in the middle of the season, the Timbers have been fairly average this year. What's been the main reason for how the team hasn't played better this year?
SF: Well, it depends on the chunk of the year that you are looking at.
Let's start with the beginning of the season. Coming into 2015 the Timbers were missing two of the driving forces behind the team's success in 2013 and late season surge in 2014: Diego Valeri and Will Johnson. Both players started the season out due to injures suffered late in 2014. Johnson broke his tibia and fibula in Toronto last September and Valeri tore his ACL in the final match of the 2014 season. They were soon joined by Ben Zemanski when the Timbers' No. 3 holding midfielder tore his ACL during the preseason. All that, plus a rolled ankle for Valeri shortly after his return (again in Toronto, of course), set the Timbers up for half a season of second and third choice lineups and disjointed play as the team was forced to continuously change things up while stretched thin by every absence.
Even since the successful returns of Johnson and Valeri -- Zemanski will be out through the end of the year -- the Timbers have been struggling to get the whole of the team on the same page. While Johnson seems to have come back to some success right away (the Timbers have only lost one of the eleven matches that he has played in so far this season), things have needed a little bit more of a steady build for Valeri. The Timbers' No. 8 is good, but is his understanding with his fellow attackers that gives him the chance to be great and, until recently, Valeri has only been good for the Timbers this season.
There is reason to believe that Valeri is turning the corner back to great status, however, with the only evidence needed being his play in the Timbers' frustrating 0-0 draw (I initially wrote loss there, which is what the lack of points felt like) against SKC. Valeri was back at his best against the Sportings, pulling the strings of the attack and creating chance after chance for his fellow attackers, in particular new arrival and fellow Argentine Lucas Melano.
As far as this most recent run of less than desirable results, we touched on it in the first question above: the Timbers seem to have had a team-wide case of the yips. While the Timbers have snagged a goal here and there, in the end seven goals in nine games is not going to serve any team well, no matter how good their back line is. The Timbers have the talent to put the ball in the back of the net and the fans are clinging to the hope that they will figure it out before it is too late, but if the scoring drought goes on much longer it, more than the early season injuries, will be the defining factor of this season.
OaM: The Red Bulls like to play a high pressure style where they force turnover as far up the field as possible. What should fans look for from Portland as they try to break through?
SF: The Timbers' back line tends to be quite good on the ball, but if a team can put on pressure quick enough and high enough up the pitch, the Timbers can be forced into coughing up the ball. Of course, that does not happen very often. Through fourteen home games the Timbers have only given up nine goals, making Providence Park a very difficult place for visiting teams to get on the board.
Looking at teams that play a high press against the Timbers, the vast majority have ended up like Sporting Kansas City last week: frustrated by the Timbers' ability to pass the ball out of the back and their confidence in the big man up top, Fanendo Adi, to boot the ball down the pitch if they need to. In fact, Adi seems to be the key for the Timbers' ability to deal with high pressure situations as the defense will, when needed, bypass the midfield and look for him up top. Few players in MLS can win a header like Adi and, with Valeri playing underneath him and Melano streaking down the wing with crazy speed (have fun with that, Connor Lade's backup), the Timbers have really started to use this to spring crazy-effective counter attacks down the pitch. Other than the actually scoring part.
Timbers Lineup Prediction: Kwarasey; Villafana, Ridgewell, Borchers, Powell; Johnson, Chara; Melano, Valeri, Nagbe; Adi
The Timbers could switch this up in a number of ways, playing Norberto Paparatto on the back line, bringing in Rodney Wallace or Dairon Asprilla in place of Nagbe or Adi or Melano, but with three points needed, you have to think that Caleb Porter is going to stick with the game plan that should have seen the Timbers take six points in the last two games. Should have.