D.C. United isn’t getting much time to unwind after their high-stress, dramatic win on Sunday night. A quick turnaround means just two days to prepare for the Portland Timbers, who have recovered from a slow start to the Giovanni Savarese era to become one of MLS’s most dangerous teams.
One feature of Savares’s time in charge has been repeated formation changes. While he started the year with a 4231, by the end of March he had moved into the 4321 that has been their main (but by no means only) choice. Savarese has also played a back three, has brought the 4231 back out a few times, and last week against Vancouver opted for a 442 diamond.
Normally in MLS history, this level of tinkering hasn’t been rewarded. However, we’re in a new era, and Savarese’s formation moves have been purposeful and effective. The Timbers are coming off of a loss to Vancouver on the weekend, but before that they had been on a 15-game unbeaten run in MLS (including 10 wins). The shifts have worked, the players have all bought in to things changing from game to game, and Portland is no joke.
However, that same tendency to make changes makes this piece kind of tricky. Between Savarese’s changes, the quick turnaround, a cross-country trip, and the Timbers having another road game on Saturday, it’s safe to expect a different lineup from their loss to the Whitecaps. But where are the changes? It’s hard to say, beyond a suspicion that last week’s diamond was a one-off based on an extremely defensive opponent. On the road against United, who are pretty good going forward and struggling at the back, the Timbers are probably going to bring in a fifth midfielder and go back to their normal counter-attacking approach.
In lieu of an article looking at all of the ways Portland could field four defenders, five midfielders, and one forward, let’s assume it’ll be the their most common choice: the 4321.
In goal, Jeff Attinella has taken the long way around to becoming a starter in MLS. At 29, he set a career high for appearances in a single league season this past weekend by starting his 15th game. The Timbers have only lost once since he moved atop the depth chart, though that has more to do with their overall defensive organization than anything else. Attinella is not a spectacular goalkeeper, but he rarely makes egregious mistakes. Of course, he did commit a huge blunder against the Whitecaps just three days ago, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s shaken it off in time for tomorrow.
Larrys Mabiala and Julio Cascante have locked down the starting center back jobs, with Liam Ridgewell now an expensive reserve who doesn’t make the 18. Both players are tough, intelligent, and athletic, and Mabiala in particular has emerged as a dangerous threat on set pieces. Figuring a way past them is going to be a major challenge, especially as it’s hard enough to even get at them at all due to Portland’s front-to-back solidity.
We may see some rotation on either side of them. Zarek Valentin has done well enough at left back that Savarese was prepared to let Vytas go, but he’s a different sort of player. He’s more of a defense-first fullback, which helps balance out Portland’s approach. On the other side, Alvas Powell is far more of an attacking threat, but with a Western Conference game on Saturday, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Savarese to rotate Powell out. Most likely, Valentin would move over to the right (he’s a right-footer), with Marco Farfan coming in. Bill Tuiloma is another option, but Savarese has used him as an option at center back more than Caleb Porter did.
One-time United target Andy Polo didn’t start against Vancouver, but he came in at halftime and gave the Timbers a major boost. Despite a reputation as an attacker before he came to MLS, Savarese has gotten good results out of using Polo as the most attacking member of his three-man defensive midfield group. Polo will get forward with speed, and will often peel out to the touchline. It’s not a conventional look, but that’s part of what makes it so effective. Polo has also been able to get back and do the defensive work, though Savarese has subbed him out in many of his starts.
He’ll most likely be joined by David Guzman and Diego Chara, though Savarese might be tempted to rest one or both of them. Guzman has only appeared 5 times this season due to an early injury and Costa Rican national team duty at the World Cup, but he’s healthy now. Guzman is less of a ball-winner and more a fan of making interceptions and using his anticipation to block off passing lanes. If Portland holds both players out of the lineup, this job at the base of the midfield will go to Lawrence Olum, but that seems like a stretch.
Chara is rather irreplaceable for the Timbers, at least as far as wins and losses go. They’ve gone 19 MLS matches (including playoffs) without a win when he doesn’t play, and historically their record without him since his arrival is pretty dire. It’s a bizarre fluke rather than him being some kind of living, breathing talisman, but the fact remains that the 33-year-old Colombian’s abilities as a ball-winner haven’t faded much at all. Portland could go with Andres Flores if they want to rest Chara or Guzman (Chara would play in the middle in the latter case), but it feels like they’re going to keep him in the team.
Portland’s counter-attacking strategy largely relies on the skill and intelligence of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco as dual attacking midfielders. Valeri has started every game this year, and despite the system change and being a year older, he’s still one of the very best players in MLS. Valeri has 9 goals and 10 assists in 21 appearances this year, and is just as dangerous without the ball as he is with it.
Blanco hasn’t quite matched Valeri’s numbers (he’s on 6g/4a in 19 starts), but he’s still extremely dangerous. Blanco is more mobile than Valeri, and is often responsible with bringing the ball forward out of midfield. He’s fast enough to break lines on the dribble, but still has the vision to do the job as a passer as well. United needs to confront Blanco early, so that he’s having to pass off to someone else rather than leading the charge himself.
Samuel Armenteros has done well enough that Portland found Fanendo Adi dispensable, but it seems unlikely that he’s going to play tomorrow. He was substituted on Saturday due to a knee injury, and while he’s not believed to have a serious problem, Portland probably wants him to start against KC this coming Saturday. That leaves Dairon Asprilla, who will look to stretch the field vertically. Asprilla hasn’t had a lot of success in front of goal this year, but he still makes plenty of room for Valeri and Blanco. However, since Asprilla went the full 90 against Vancouver, there’s a chance Savarese gives him a rest as well, which would mean a start for Bethesda native and former United U23 player Jeremy Ebobisse.
You’ll notice no mention of Jorge Villafaña or Lucas Melano. The Timbers returnees both just got back to town, and while they’re probably on the trip out for this one, this game is probably too early for them to start. Instead, Portland’s likely moves are to either bring in fresh midfielders to keep their defensive shield solid (in which case, look for Flores or Cristhian Paredes), or to move into a 4231 if they need a goal. They could push Polo upfield, or bring in Melano, or add Ebobisse up top and pushing Asprilla out to the right.