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Stumptown Breakdown: Number Two Number-Ten

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With Diego Valeri’s injury, Gaston Fernandez is prepared to step into the playmaking limelight.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The last thing the Rose City needed was more bad news after their crash out of playoff contention despite a 2-0 win on Saturday night in Frisco, Texas. But come Monday morning, another piece of deflating news awaited Timbers fans: Diego Valeri is slated to miss at least the next five months with a torn ACL.

In a season in which so much went wrong, this was the final gut punch.

But all may not be lost. Because, while Valeri’s talents are unique in MLS, the Timbers are perhaps the best-equipped team in in the league to cope with the relatively short-term loss of their talisman. The reason is simple: Gaston Fernandez. And we saw exactly why in Saturday’s second half.

After Alvas Powell did nicely to dispossess a dangerous Fabian Castillo, the Timbers, leading by a goal, re-settled the ball into a nice stretch of possession.

The sequence really begins with Liam Ridgewell playing a hopeful long ball to Rodney Wallace.  The long ball is forced by some effective – if not quite urgent – pressure from Blas Perez that kept Ridgewell from playing the ball back into the middle to Ben Zemanski or Diego Chara.  But the thing to really notice here is how many red shirts are in the picture – four.  Leaving only six Burn defenders back to win Ridgewell’s ball or deal with any ensuing Timbers attack.

It’s only fair at this point to note something that is either tremendous recognition by Ridgewell or a coincidence. With Alvas Powell down injured, many, including Pa Modou Kah and the broadcasters, expected the Timbers to play the ball out. Ridgewell doesn’t, which is very smart (albeit risky), as FC Dallas is showing no intent of getting back to defend.

As it happens, Je-Vaughn Watson wins the ball, but Rodney Wallace does the next best thing – force Watson into a hurried play on it.  As a result, the ball is essentially still a 50-50 off Watson’s foot.

And one that falls cleanly to Ben Zemanski.  And now Dallas regrets having so many players caught upfield.  The Timbers aren’t overextended – they still have Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara, and he entire backline behind midfield – but Dallas is still looking at unfavorable numbers.  But for all their numbers problems, the Hoops aren’t entirely out of shape.

Until you see Gaston Fernandez enter the play.  Michel, as the left back, is reluctant to get sucked too far inside to provide help, as Dallas would then be wide open for a Darlington Nagbe run into the attacking half.  This basically leaves Victor Ulloa alone to handle La Gata.

It doesn’t go well for Ulloa. Fernandez – who had been Hardawaying people all night – eliminates Ulloa with a quick cutback. Simultaneously, Maxi Urruti, who had been stalking around the top of the box all this time, takes off on a run between the centerbacks.

Fernandez’s schooling of Ulloa, then, forces Matt Hedges to step to Gaston and out of the preferred passing lane for Fernandez to slip the ball to Urruti. Fernandez recognizes this immediately and slips the ball past Hedges for Maxi.

One touch at the top of the box is all it takes for Urruti to get his bearings, and it’s routine for him from there – a confident finish from the top of the box. The result?

Somersaults.

Now, none of this is terribly difficult. FC Dallas put themselves in a pickle by defending with five men. Needing a win, the Hoops were throwing numbers forward in a semi-desperate attempt to get the two goals necessary.

But Fernandez should also give you hope that, assuming he returns, he can be an effective stand-in for Valeri. Although Fernandez typically likes to float as the number-ten higher up the field to almost play as a second forward, he demonstrates the qualities of a deeper-lying Valeriesque playmaker here. He takes his man on and beats him one-on-one (something Fernandez does more than Valeri), shows great vision to see Urruti starting his run early, makes the split-second decision to make the pass before Ulloa can recover, and executes the assist perfectly.

That’s exactly what you want from your ten.

So while Valeri’s likely loss for the opening stages of 2015 is certainly a setback for the Timbers, we can rest a little bit easier knowing Caleb Porter already has a capable stand-in on the roster.