Turns out it's hard to find time to blog when it's Memorial Day weekend when the weather's nice and seemingly all of your friends are either having kids, finishing grad school, or accomplishing some other sort of grown-up goal. It doesn't help when you find Miller High Life and Guinness both on sale at your local liquor store.
There should be a relative lack of animosity between the Portland Timbers and D.C. United. John Spencer and Ben Olsen would have gotten along tremendously had they ever played together. Both clubs hate the Seattle Sounders. United fans even hung a banner supporting Portland's expansion bid. However, with points on the line and beat writers turning into fanboys, it would appear that any mutual understandings will have to be put to the side for the night. Here, let me try: Portland is supposed to be super eco-friendly, yet they named their team after the tree-murdering logging industry? That's stupid.
Follow beyond the jump for the B&RU scouting report on D.C. United's opponent tonight, the Portland Timbers:
Spencer will not likely be making any surprising selections in his starting eleven:
While the Timbers did play Ajax on Wednesday - losing 2-0; wait, didn't we do better than that? - they rotated plenty of second-choice players through their lineup. That means it would be a major surprise to see Spencer deviate from what has become a set-in-stone starting team. The one question mark may be Darlington Nagbe; the first-round pick has not exactly struggled since overcoming a preseason injury, but he's also not making a particularly significant impact at right midfield. We may see Sal Zizzo there instead; Zizzo lacks Nagbe's skill and top-gear speed, but he brings a lot of energy and a bit more defensive nous.
The main story with Portland has of course been their ability to turn set piece chances into goals. The numbers are straight-up gaudy: 9 set piece goals in 10 games played. For many teams in MLS, getting to that total over a whole season is a reasonable goal. Jack Jewsbury's free kicks have been precise, and any team fielding Eric Brunner (6'4"), Futty Danso (6'3"), and Kenny Cooper (6'3") will always be a threat when it comes to free kicks.
There is little going on here beyond good service, big players, and simply having more desire to get to the ball somehow. While Portland's last set piece goal was the result of Jewsbury and Kalif Alhassan being more alert than the entire Columbus Crew squad, most of their success has come with a lack of deception or wrinkles. Jewsbury puts the ball in a decent spot, and the big fellas take care of the rest.
For United, winning every single battle is probably out of the question; we just don't have the size to do it. The job becomes getting in the way enough to prevent Timbers players from getting to the ball in time, or just getting a bump on them so that they can't snap headers on goal. It sounds easy, but this may actually be the toughest single task D.C. has had to deal with over the course of the season. This is a mismatch against us, and everyone in a United shirt is going to have to overachieve for us to keep the Timbers from having dangerous shots from these situations. Perhaps the single best thing we can do to defuse this ticking time bomb is to simply avoid fouling anywhere near our goal. That means tackling with care, and also thinking just that little bit faster so that we're not diving into things.
So Portland is great on set pieces; everyone knows that. What interests me just as much is the flip side of that coin: The Timbers have just 4 goals from the run of play all season. Spencer can grouse over Sigi Schmid's assessment of Portland all he wants, but the fact remains that the Timbers offense is almost comically reliant on set pieces. That's not to say that they try to limit the game to an exchange of free kick chances; the Timbers do work awfully hard in their efforts to create offense without needing a free kick. They just aren't that good at it.
The problem for Portland is that, going forward, they don't have too many real threats. Nagbe, as I said earlier, hasn't hit the ground running in MLS. Zizzo is energetic, but that's about it. Jewsbury is a box-to-box player; he and Dax McCarty are actually quite similar once you get past the fact that Jewsbury's free kicks are much better than Dax's. Designated Player Diego Chara has class on the ball, but he doesn't look entirely adjusted to MLS or his teammates yet. Cooper and Jorge Perlaza often find themselves playing very far apart, which means they're often going it alone. It's a nice forward pairing, but it's not a particularly well-connected duo at this point.
The threat from Portland will be generated either down the wings or with an early ball over the top for Perlaza. Fortunately for us, Dejan Jakovic and Ethan White have some speed; a little anticipation, and those two should be able to either gain a superior angle or snuff Perlaza's run out before it really starts by getting in the way.
The wide play, however, comes from both the midfielders and the outside backs. Like Spencer was as a player, the Timbers are aggressive, which means that Jeremy Hall and (particularly) Rodney Wallace will be coming forward throughout the game. We all know about what Wallace can bring in terms of speed, work rate, and physicality; we also know that he's not a particularly big threat as a crosser. Wallace is more of a danger either cutting into the box or just being that extra runner you have to track that throws a defense off balance. Hall has spent less time as a defender - at Maryland, he was a Steve Zakuani-style goalscoring winger for Sasho Cirovski - and as a result does less attacking, but is by no means staying at home.
That's the bad news. The good news is that United's best avenue to deal with this is to do what we're good at, which is attacking the wings. This is a "fight fire with fire" situation. Andy Najar and Chris Pontius are our key players in this game, because they'll be the guys attacking those players. If we can force Portland's outside backs into a more conservative game than they usually play, we'll have made their offense even more predictable. That will also mean guys that are susceptible to bad defending are up against our strongest attacking midfielders. As much as our set piece defending is a problem tonight, our wingers against their outside backs is a mismatch in our favor. If you see McCarty, Clyde Simms, or anyone else playing mid-range balls early in an attacking move to the wings, we're doing things right.
In the attack, it's a real shame that Charlie Davies is hurt and that Josh Wolff may only be able to come off the bench. Speedy, elusive forwards are the kind players that will trouble Brunner and Danso, who would rather have a battle with bigger, slower sorts of forwards. Unfortunately, that's probably what we have tonight (though Blake Brettschneider and Joseph Ngwenya aren't out-and-out slow). Playing the ball in the air is probably of little use for D.C. going forward. When we do play a long ball, it will be vital to win the knockdown, since we're probably not going to win the header itself.
Finally, United will have to be ready for the pace of the game. The narrow confines of JELD-WEN Field (why is that capitalized?) would force a pinball-style game on grass; on turf that will likely be wet, soccer tends to be played at 100 mph from the start. Games in Portland haven't just been entertaining because of the Timbers Army; they tend to be end-to-end for 90 minutes. United will have to weather a hell of a storm in the early going, but if we can get a foothold in the game, we'll have a real chance. Portland's young team has yet to master using a crowd's energy for the entire game; instead, they tend to come out flying for an hour, then run out of gas because they've been sprinting at top speed that whole time. D.C. will have to play with maturity, patience, and focus to get to the latter stages of the game with a scoreline that can still become a positive result.