The Portland Timbers take on the top team in Major League Soccer tonight, 3-0-1 FC Dallas. Dallas, who have scored six goals and allowed only one through their first four games, will prove to be yet another stiff test for the Timbers early in the season. However, if Portland can overcome this formidable opponent the Timbers will be well on their way to breaking out of their early season funk.
The Timbers come into this game following a dominating performance against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Vancouver that saw the Timbers have the better of just about every possible statistic except goals as they lost 2-1 on the back of a well-placed free kick and a defensive gaff that even now seems incredible, if not impossible.
While the Timbers may have had some difficulty making their possession advantage count for much of anything against Vancouver, it is encouraging to see the team getting back on the ball and keeping hold of it, particularly given their perhaps overly direct soccer in the first two matches of the season against Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy.
In particular, it has been encouraging to see Darlington Nagbe able to continue to influence matches when cutting in from the right flank, rather than parked in the center of the pitch. With Alvas Powell covering ground all up and down the right, Nagbe's ability to operate inside gives the speedy Powell room in which to affect the game and give the Timbers a man advantage in the attack, something that the Timbers made great use of late in the 2014 season.
While Nagbe may have been effective at holding the ball and moving it around the pitch, it is hard to argue that the Timbers have been effective at creating clear-cut chances and, more importantly, converting them.
The striker pairing of Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti were not particularly effective together against Vancouver, with Urruti getting the hook in the 65' before Adi would go on to get what very well should have been the game tying goal in the 82'. The two are both extremely talented individuals, however, and there is a simple explanation for their lack of chemistry: other than a single appearance in 2014 the two had never before started a match side-by-side nor spent significant time working with each other in training.
This week saw the Timbers working Adi and Urruti side by side in one early, open training session, focusing on their movement in tandem. The propensity of the pair to move into the same spaces was a reason given by Caleb Porter in the 2014 season for not playing the two together up top. This year, however, the Timbers have had to get creative without Diego Valeri on the pitch.
There are plenty of alternatives for an Adi-Urruti pairing, however. Gaston Fernandez could be brought in for either player as a second striker or could be played back in the midfield as a winger or even a central attacking midfielder. Dairon Asprilla could get another run out, either as a right winger or even a forward, a position that was part of his billing when he was acquired by the Timbers over the offseason.
Both possibilities have their drawbacks. Fernandez has struggled in his time on the pitch this year, having difficulty combining with his teammates in the attack when used as a sub in the first three matches of the season; the fourth match, however, saw something finally click for La Gata as he began to finally link up well with the rest of the side. Asprilla also showed a real spark as a late-game sub against Vancouver, but putting him on the field as a starter necessitates displacing Nagbe from arguably his most effective position and putting a barrier in the way of Powell's ability to get forward freely.
There is also an important lineup question on the defensive side of the midfield as Jack Jewsbury will likely be available for today's match if he is cleared from the league's return to play protocol for concussion symptoms this morning. Jewsbury, who started in the midfield in the first three matches of the season, is a solid presence in the midfield who provides the Timbers with impeccable free kick service even if he has slowed down a step or two since joining the Timbers in 2011.
The other possibility is second year man George Fochive: a powerful and talented defensive midfielder who lacks Jewsbury's experience, but could certainly stand up to the physical rigors of taking on a young and fast Dallas side. Fochive, who started the season opener alongside Jewsbury and last week's match alongside Diego Chara, has impressed with his ability to make tackles and then get forward in the attack, even taking a powerful shot from distance that tested the keeper against Vancouver last Saturday.
The more likely pick to take the field tonight has to be Fochive, who has been involved in first team training all week and seems to be gaining in confidence as he continues to get minutes. Jewsbury's fitness will certainly not have fallen off significantly in just under two weeks out of practice, but against the Dallas side, every step will count.
Dallas are coming off a harsh 0-0 draw against the Seattle Sounders in which neither team managed a shot on goal. The game saw both sides missing a significant number of players due to injuries and international call ups, so the Timbers should not expect to face the same relatively toothless Dallas attack today.
Indeed, the Dallas attack is one of the most impressive in the league, both on paper and in practice.
Up top, Blas Perez has been a key player for Dallas since arriving in MLS in 2012. Since then he has scored 34 goals in 77 games, just under a goal every two games. Now 34, Perez is showing no signs of slowing down in his goal scoring, having notched three goals in three appearances so far this season.
Out wide Dallas boasts a pair of impressive young players: Tesho Akindele and Fabian Castillo. Castillo has been honing his scoring talents in MLS over the last five years since coming to the league as an 18-year-old. Boasting blazing speed and impressive one on one skill, Castillo will prove a handful for Powell and the Timbers' centerbacks from his regular spot on the left. Akindele, meanwhile, burst onto the scene last year as he scored seven goals and provided three assists in his rookie campaign after Dallas selected him, somewhat surprisingly, with the No. 6 pick in the 2014 Superdraft.
Finally, the defining player in the Dallas attack is their No. 10 Mauro Diaz. An Argentine playmaker capable of pulling the strings of the attack, Diaz adds possession and precision to Dallas in much the same way that Diego Valeri does for Portland. Unlike Valeri, this offseason notwithstanding, Diaz has not had his chance to put his stamp on Dallas after arriving midway through the 2013 season, then struggling with injuries in 2014.
This year Diaz against finds himself missing time heading into tonight's match, having missed last weekend's match due to a "leg/foot injury"; the same "leg/foot injury" that has held him out of practice this week and made him one of the biggest mysteries heading into this match.
With Diaz on the field, Dallas are a different team than without him. If Diaz is fit and able to play, the Timbers will have far more angles of attack to worry about defending. If Diaz is not able to go, however, the Timbers can be fairly certainly that the Dallas game plan will revolve around going fast down the flanks and making something happen from there, giving them a similar one-dimensionality to the Timbers in the first half against Vancouver.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Dallas have looked strong on defense with Chris Seitz consistently beating out respected MLS veteran Dan Kennedy for the starting spot, although the victory is somewhat tainted by Kennedy's recent back spasms keeping him out of contention for the match against Seattle. Seitz, who has not needed to be overly active through the first four matches, has made ten saves so far this year, tenth most in MLS.
Ahead of Seitz are the centerback pairing of Zach Loyd and Matt Hedges and a revolving door of fullbacks on either side. Shielding the defense has been the holding midfield pair of Michel and homegrown player Victor Ulloa. Michel, like Jewsbury, provides fantastic free kick service, but leaves the ground covering to his younger partner in the center of the pitch. Michel may be an even better server of the ball than Jewsbury, but what he gains in set piece service, he gives up in positional sense, regularly getting pulled out of position to the dissatisfaction of the Dallas faithful.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 7:30 pm pacific at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 0-1-3, 10th place in the Western Conference
FC Dallas: 3-0-1, 1st place in the Western Conference