Saturday afternoon's game against the Los Angeles Galaxy is a crucial one for the Portland Timbers. During their nine-game unbeaten streak, the Timbers have amassed 17 points out of a possible 27; a respectable amount, but definitely room for improvement. With wins against Seattle, Houston, San Jose, and Vancouver during that stretch, only one of those teams sits in the playoff picture (our rivals across the Canadian border). It is important for the Timbers to start picking up points, specifically all three points, against the top Western Conference foes, not only to help cement their position in the Western Conference, but also to help continue the streak that they are on and build confidence as the season hits crunch time.
In the last ten meetings between Portland and Los Angeles, the Timbers have had the better of the matchup with a 3-2-5 record, with one of those wins coming in the final month of the season last year to help propel the Timbers into the playoffs. During that 5-2 win in Los Angeles, we saw one of the best performances in 2015 from the Green and Gold in the second half as they flipped a 1-0 halftime deficit. What made the Timbers successful was their ability to feed off of Fanendo Adi's hold up play and then find the space in behind the Los Angeles defense. Adi was so impressive in that game last year, scoring two goals and helping create another. He was a mismatch for the two Galaxy center backs with his size, strength, and mobility. There are not may target forwards who can make plays like this which helped set up the third goal.
The way he runs in behind Leonardo and then holds of Omar Gonzalez is truly impressive. He recognizes the space and then has the strength and cognizance to hold off his man and wait for support and other runners. After finding Rodney Wallace, Diego Chara was able to score with his head and put the Timbers up 3-1. With the introduction of Daniel Steres and Jelle Van Damme, Los Angeles' defense sets up a little bit better to combat Adi's physicality and target play. If the Timbers want to continue to feed him the ball like they did in this game and closing the 2015 season, they will have to make sure they get the numbers around him so that he has options, just like in this instance.
In the only Timbers vs Galaxy matchup this year, the two teams played to a 1-1 draw during the infamous game in April where Nigel De Jong received his suspension for his crushing tackle on Darlington Nagbe. While early on in the season, Portland was still struggling to find its consistency on both sides of the ball; the attack had yet to find its true flow moving forward and the defense struggled to keep its shape and organization. As discussed earlier this week, it seems as if both sides of the Timbers unit have been finding its stride. However, two key pieces of the Timbers’ lineup, captain Liam Ridgewell and midfielder Jack Jewsbury, will be missing from the lineup with injuries. Coach Caleb Porter stated that Ben Zemanski and Zarek Valentin should step into the team to replace the two, expecting the lineup to look like:
Powell - Taylor - Borchers - Valentin
Chara - Zemanski
Melano - Valeri - Nagbe
This is a very similar formation and lineup to the squad that took the field against the Galaxy in April. In that game, the Timbers found their best opportunities on the counter attack, including Adi’s well placed finish. With the way that Portland exposed Seattle on the counter, it would be foolish for Los Angeles and Coach Bruce Arena to try to bring the same game plan up to Providence Park.
With the Los Angeles Galaxy facing some injuries of their own, both Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard look to be out injured, the away team could look to sit a bit more and try to break out with their speed. The Galaxy could look to place both Gyasi Zardes and Sebastian Lletget on the wings and use their pace in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1:
DeLaGarza - Steres - Van Damme - Romney
DeJong - Husidic (Larentowicz)
Zardes - dos Santos - Lletget
Since they are coming off of a 4-2 win in the Quarterfinals of the US Open Cup on Wednesday night, a counterattacking game plan could be in store for the Galaxy.
With Ashley Cole's absence in the defense, the Timbers could look to expose the young Dave Romney at left back with Lucas Melano's speed and Diego Valeri's vision and skill. The young USF grad has performed well since coming into the league last year, however, it is an area of opportunity, especially with those two Timbers. Additionally, as illustrated in the previous game, Jelle Van Damme enjoys leaving his traditional position in the backline to step into the midfield or out wide to win balls. If smart, the Timbers can expose this habit and look to bump balls off of Adi to suck him out of position and then use the space in behind.
Saturday’s match for the Portland Timbers is an important one. With the team looking to find its form, it is crucial that they continue to build on the momentum and rack up points. Despite some injuries to key players, the group should still be able to find its shape in front of the home crowd.