When D.C. United's 2014 schedule came out, I looked at this stretch of April plus three days as potentially defining for the Black-and-Red. Two of the top three teams from the Eastern Conference in 2013, plus a potentially improved Columbus Crew and a most likely improved FC Dallas, and then it was all capped off with a cross-country trip to face the Portland Timbers, who based on last season's form should be an MLS Cup contender. Losing our first two games increased my anxiety, even as it became clear that last season's form wasn't holding for any of these teams.
It's funny how things turn out. United came within moments of winning the first four of these games, which is the good news. The bad news, of course, is that every one of these opponents turned out to be weaker than expected. United hung on desperately for an hour against a Metrostars side lacking Tim Cahill. MLS's second-most bizarre own goal of 2014 was crucial in winning an otherwise even game against the Revs. The visit to Columbus saw United give away two points by letting a team with ten men score in stoppage time. And finally, regardless of the plaudits United earned by dismantling FC Dallas, it has to be acknowledged that the score was 1-0 to the visitors before Zach Loyd's red card.
Which brings us to the Portland Timbers, who for those that haven't seen them this season are a baffling team. Caleb Porter only lost two starters - striker Ryan Johnson is getting his pockets straightened in China, while Rodney Wallace is a long-term casualty due to a torn ACL - while addressing his teams flaws rather than gambling on his side hiding them for another season. Last year's Timbers were masterful at hiding their weak center backs, so the addition of Norberto Paparatto made perfect sense. Meanwhile, solid MLS veteran Johnson was ostensibly replaced by Gaston Fernandez, a veteran forward with extensive experience in Argentina, Mexico, and a Copa Libertadores title on his resume.
On paper, this should have made the Timbers legitimate Supporters Shield contenders along with a push for the Cup. The Timbers had weak defenders, so they got a better one. They upgraded at forward. They took a flyer on Steve Zakuani, banking on the former Sounder returning to the form he had before the broken leg he suffered in 2011. Late-season addition Maximiliano Urruti would have a full preseason to settle in. It all pointed to this being a very difficult game for United.
As you surely know, none of this panned out. United is the team on a five-game unbeaten run, while the Timbers are somehow winless eight games into the season. What gives?
It's never just one thing. The Timbers were lauded for their style of play throughout 2013, but part of the recipe was having guys that were comfortable playing direct. For last year's Portland team, those players were Johnson, Wallace, and Frederic Piquionne (who has barely played in 2014, and wasn't even in the US for last week's game in Houston). The Timbers have tried to use Fernandez to replace both Johnson up front and Wallace as a left winger, but in both roles he's a different sort of player from the man who used to hold the job. To sum up the point, the Timbers have a rare problem in MLS: They're not direct enough to be effective.
Another issue for Portland has been good ol' regression to the mean. Last year's Timbers saw some very special things all happen at once. Will Johnson played at a level above even what he'd shown on some outstanding Real Salt Lake teams, chipping in nine goals while covering so much ground it would seem like Portland was playing 12v11. Diego Chara stepped up about two tiers from where he'd been in 2012. Diego Valeri came to MLS and, rather than the normal adjustment period, put himself in the MVP discussion. The poor-on-paper back four all stepped up as individuals and as a unit, and the sometimes shaky Donovan Ricketts finally played up to the hype.
None of that is holding true this year. Johnson is playing well, but "well" is a big step below how he looked in 2013. Chara, similarly, has regressed to simply being a good but not great MLS defensive midfielder (golazos against Seattle aside). Valeri had offseason surgery and has been quite frankly ineffective for all of 2014. All four defenders are no longer playing up a level, Ricketts has if anything gone beyond regression to the mean and is straight-up regressing, and Darlington Nagbe hasn't been able to carry the load now that teams don't have threats everywhere to cope with.
Nonetheless, Porter has stuck to his guns. The Timbers play the same formation that they did last year - the fashionable 4231 that coaches call a 433 - and they apply the same approach. They want to get the ball on the ground, dominate possession, and beat teams with their skill and their brains rather than athletically. The ideals Porter has his team aim for are admirable, but after eight games you have to start wondering if they're up to the demands of playing positive, attractive soccer.
The question marks are largely due to form rather than any injury concerns. Paparatto was prone to costly errors in the first few games of the season, but may return if only because Futty Danso and Pa Modou Kah haven't been much better. Danso at least has met expectations, but those expectations are "serviceable if he's the third-best center back on an MLS team." As Michael Orr told us yesterday, Danso is currently Portland's best center back. That's great news for United.
Of course, Paparatto might be forced to step in due to Kah missing some practice this week due to a tight hamstring. The Timbers seem to be simply being cautious with Kah by resting him, but if a player's an injury risk and in poor form, you have to consider making a change.
Porter won't be changing his engine room, but his front four could all be up in the air. Fernandez has three goals, but has also had some games where he made no real impact. Valeri will probably start, but one wonders how long a bold coach like Porter will wait for him to find himself. Nagbe will definitely start if he's OK after being stepped on by Corey Ashe late last weekend. The issue there is that Nagbe can play right, left, or center, and spent a few minutes centrally - with Valeri on the right - against the Dynamo. Kalif Alhassan seems like the choice to play opposite Nagbe, but Michael Nanchoff has looked lively in recent appearances.
Up front, Urruti works as hard as any striker in MLS but has struggled badly despite getting some good looks at goal. Starting Fernandez ups PTFC's chances of scoring, but they lose a lot in terms of pressuring up high in the exchange. Neither is a real target man, and that's the role Piquionne would fill. If I were Porter and Piquionne were available, I'd absolutely be starting him. More good news for United: Piquionne is still in Martinique due to a family emergency, so the Timbers will have to make due without anyone really capable of holding the ball up with their back to goal.
Despite their issues and Porter's insistence on staying the course, it's not like the Timbers have been shambolic. They're still a tough team to beat. They haven't yet lost at Providence Park, and carried leads into the final 15 minutes in their last two home games. Portland hasn't been in good form by any means, but teams that are bad and mentally weak lose those games (as United fans know). The Timbers are bad right now, but they're not pushovers by any means.
I touched on the Timbers conceding late goals of late, but it's not just a recent trend. Portland started the season by scoring equalizers in the 94th and 79th minutes of their first two games, but since then they've been the victim of the late goal rather than the scorer:
- At Colorado, gave up two goals in the 73rd and 75th minutes to lose 2-0
- At FC Dallas, they lost 2-1 thanks to an 84th minute strike from Mauro Diaz
- Hosting the Sounders, they saw a 4-2 lead dissolve via Clint Dempsey goals in the 85th and 87th minutes
- A week later, they gave up a 79th minute goal to Chivas USA and finished with a 1-1 draw
- At RSL a couple weeks back, they gave up the game's only goal in the 78th minute
Combine that dreadful trend with arguably their biggest flaw - set piece defending - and you can see a path for United to get a result despite the long flight. The Black-and-Red have been short of scintillating playing 11v11, but they've been mentally tough. Maintaining that sort of discipline and heading into the late stages tied would be a very promising scenario for United.
Defensively, United will need to maintain the strong communication we've seen of late. The Timbers are very fluid, to the point that the above lineup graphic will probably only hold for 20 minutes or so before Porter shifts his front four around. Fernandez and/or Urruti are not target men, but they are mobile and pop up in unconventional spots. They're not as odd as Fabian Espindola, but they will drop deep enough that the Timbers will occasionally look more like a team playing a 4240 rather than a 4231.
That's an unusual challenge between the lines for United, who has more recently faced fairly conventional runs and formations. Ben Olsen will need his defenders to step up at the right moments while also telling the midfield - and not just Perry Kitchen or Davy Arnaud - when they need to jump back and help out.
The Timbers are too narrow much of the time, but when they get two or three players into a tight spot, you can be sure that there's an open runner somewhere nearby. Tracking those runners is the key, because Nagbe and Valeri haven't quite looked sharp enough thus far to play themselves out of a phone booth like they were last year. They need to make that pass rather than use it as a decoy, so if the pass isn't there we should be able to win the ball soon thereafter.
At the other end of the field, United would do well to apply some occasional high pressure. In Columbus, United surprised the Crew a bit by stepping high and hassling Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez. That pair is far more comfortable on the ball than Danso, Kah, or Paparatto are, and in general the Timbers are shaky right now. When the Dynamo finally decided to press with a 1-0 lead last week, they had their best spell of the game before backing off (and then conceding a few minutes later, naturally).
In the attack, United needs to get the ball wide frequently. Jack Jewsbury is solid enough 1v1 but lacks speed, which doesn't do too much for Chris Rolfe but should be appealing for Espindola peeling out of the middle. On the other side, Michael Harrington's individual defending is his biggest weakness, and it would be nice to see Nick DeLeon go at him with the ball a few times. Even if he doesn't get past him, it might help keep Harrington home rather than bombing forward.
It's not just about the outside backs, though. Portland's center backs have been almost laughably prone to ball-watching on crosses. Their work defending Will Bruin's goal last week illustrates the problem. Somehow, Danso and Kah managed to both be wrong-side of their man, leaving Bruin and Giles Barnes essentially to battle over who got to score. For United, that means more crosses than we normally produce are needed. It can't just be Sean Franklin. Let's not forget that Eddie Johnson, despite his lack of goals thus far, is kind of good at converting this sort of opportunity.
In terms of possession, don't be surprised to see United on the losing end. Portland has been doing a good job of keeping the ball, even if they lack the ability to get in behind regularly. In Columbus, United had some decent spells of keeping the ball, but ultimately ended up with less than 40% of the ball. That's cool if you're Real Madrid and you can break forward with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but in MLS it's not a good recipe. We might have the smaller share of possession, but we need to make sure our share is more like 45% rather than 35-40%.
It feels weird to type, but there are plenty of Portland flaws that match up with United strengths. That said, this won't be an easy game. Porter is right to believe his Timbers are making incremental progress, and they have yet to put out the sort of awful showing that actual bad teams tend to do. United will need to be especially strong early, when Portland will likely be playing at 100mph.
The Timbers Army is going to be loud throughout, but getting through those early stages will give both the crowd and the team a reason to get nervous, and we learned in 2013 what a decent team can do to a nervous side. United showed they have the sort of cruelty to punish a team that isn't at their strongest last week once Dallas was down to 10 men. This week, it's about standing up to Portland's best early shot and then being ruthless against a team that is struggling with confidence.