We’ve seen Sunday’s game before. And it was just as good the third time.
The Portland Timbers on Sunday topped Columbus Crew SC by a 2-1 scoreline that mirrored the Timbers’ September regular-season win in Columbus and Portland's MLS Cup triumph in December.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ deja vu victory over Columbus:
1. Do the Timbers just have the Crew’s number?
Not only was the scoreline the same in each of the past three fixtures, but the games played out very similarly. The Crew dominated possession, pushed their fullbacks into the attack, and whipped cross after cross into the box.
But once again the Timbers were more dangerous because of their counterattacking and set-piece prowess, and once Portland got the first goal the game tilted even further in favor of a Portland team whose plan fit the gamestate.
Counterattacking the Crew, however, isn’t always just about moving quickly off of a turnover. Instead, on Sunday the Timbers were patient early in possession and worked the ball around Columbus’s high pressure, waited for the Crew to overcommit numbers, and then attacked without mercy.
Although most think of counterattacking soccer as coming immediately off of a turnover, the concept with the Timbers approach to Nagbe’s almost-goal is the same. On a true counterattack the attacking team quickly moves to capitalize on numbers advantages that present themselves as a result of the opponent committing numbers into the attack.
On the buildup to Nagbe’s strike, however, the Crew aren’t overcommitted when the Timbers get the ball. By picking up the ball and holding it, however, Lucas Melano pulls Waylon Francis forward and attracts Will Trapp to rotate to him. Once Melano is able to squeeze the ball to Nagbe, then, the Crew defensive balance is all out of whack with both the fullback and near-side defensive midfielder pulled out of position.
Then the Timbers go fast. Eight seconds after Nagbe picked the ball 65 yards from goal he’s in the box and whipping a shot over Steve Clark’s head only to be denied by the bar.
And the Timbers have done these kinds of things to Columbus over and over.
After the game Caleb Porter attributed the Timbers’ success on the break to their defensive sturdiness and team speed. In light of the Timbers’ style in 2014, the Timbers willingness and ability to play on the counter is impressive.
But their ability to do so is the primary reason that the Timbers have handed three losses to the Crew since September, won MLS Cup, and started 2016 off on the right foot.
So, yeah, until the Crew can put together some sort of Plan B, it’s fair to say the Timbers just have their number.
2. Is Dairon Asprilla the best option on the left wing?
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the Timbers’ lineup sheet was that Caleb Porter flipped Dairon Asprilla and Lucas Melano in the formation and deployed Asprilla on the left wing.
Last week against Chicago in the Simple Invitational the Timbers struggled to find width with Lucas Melano and then-left back Zarek Valentin naturally floating central as right-footed players on the left side of the formation. The narrowness played right into the centrally-packed Fire’s hands, and largely stunted the Timbers’ attack.
But, like Melano, Asprilla is right footed. And with Jermaine Taylor shifting to left back and providing virtually nothing in the form of an overlapping threat, the same dynamic could very easily have existed on Sunday.
Except it didn’t, and that’s largely to Asprilla’s credit.
On Sunday Asprilla did an excellent job of staying wide to provide width for the Timbers both in transition and in their final-third execution. All the while, Asprilla didn’t lose the goal-directness that made him a growing threat late in 2015, as we saw on this unofficial assist on Adi’s winner.
So the question now is what the plan may be going forward. Melano is perfectly capable of playing on the left, but because he naturally inverts the Timbers can really only play him there with an overlapping fullback. Simply put, the width has to come from somewhere, and when playing on the left Melano struggles to provide it.
But, as we learned on Sunday, Asprilla can provide that width, giving the Timbers the attacking balance that they need even when they lack wide attacking play from the fullback position. So as long as Chris Klute is on the shelf, it would seem Asprilla is the natural choice on the left wing.
Thereafter, however, Melano is likely to see a return to the left wing. With Klute manning the touchline, Melano’s propensity to get into the channels becomes a feature, not a bug. Simply put, while Klute provides width Melano can come inside to combine with Nagbe, Valeri, and Adi without sacrificing balance.
Although Asprilla’s tenure as the first-choice left winger may not be long, therefore, his success in that spot on Sunday gives Caleb Porter many more options to mix-and-match his attacking unit depending on matchups. And with the Timbers’ strength up the spine, flexibility on the wings could make Porter’s side an imposing attacking unit in 2016.
3. Is Fanendo Adi starting to get some respect around the league?
If Gregg Berhalter’s postgame press conference is any indication, the answer is a resounding "yes."
Asked whether he was concerned about his team’s ability to handle physically-imposing attackers like Adi and Asprilla, Berhalter prickled: "How many guys like Adi [are there] in the league?"
Toward the end of last season Adi started to make his case as one of the best target strikers in MLS. Although some insiders and analysts noticed, for the most part Adi’s name remained well down the list when pundits would rattle off the names of the best attacking talents in MLS.
But if you listen to those who know the game best, they’ll tell you Adi is an elite striker. This is why:
As Berhalter suggested, there aren’t many forwards in MLS who can do things like that. Adi possesses a combination of physicality, technical skill, and finishing ability that is rarely seen outside of Europe’s top leagues. And it appears those within Major League Soccer are starting to take note.