The Portland Timbers are back on the road this weekend and set to take on Columbus Crew SC in their first cross-conference match of the year. With two wins in the book against the Crew in the last two years, the Timbers will be looking to extend that streak and keep their record unblemished through week four of the 2017 season.
To get an idea of what the Timbers will be facing in Ohio, we turned to Patrick Murphy of our sister blog, the Massive Report, and he gave us some insight into the 2017 Crew. Check out his answers to our questions below and stop by the Massive Report right here to see our answers to his questions about the state of the Timbers.
That fateful day in 2015, and even the next meeting between the Timbers and the Crew to start off 2016, is long gone and both sides have made plenty of chances in the time since. How have the Crew changed since the Timbers last saw them? Are they still sticking dogmatically to Greg Berhalter's preferred style, or have they mixed it up at all?
To answer your first question second, yes. More or less, this team is continuing to play the same style that got them to MLS Cup.
Now to the first question. A lot has changed. Obviously Kei Kamara is no longer with the team and Ola, no relation, has come in. Ola filled Kei's shoes pretty well last year scoring 16 goals and averaging one of the best goals per minute ration of any forward in the league. The team had to adjust to playing without Kei though, who made up for a lot of the mistakes on crosses and passes with his gifted athletic ability.
Defensively, Crew SC is a lot different. Gone is Michael Parkhurst to Atlanta United. Gaston Sauro is out injured for the season (and possibly done for his career). Waylon Francis hasn't played a game all season (although he could in this game due to international call ups). In their places are Nicolai Naess and Designated Player Jonathan Mensah at center back and Jukka Raitala at left back (though he will miss this game). These were all done to improve a defense that has been poor over the last few years. The jury is still out on whether this worked or not.
Tony Tchani has also lost his spot, not only from the starting lineup, but the game day 18-man roster. He has been jumped over by offseason additions Mohammed Abu and Artur, both of which Berhalter is rather high on.
Back to the second question, while the team still wants to play the attacking, possession style, last week against D.C. United the team shifted to a three-man back line and were willing to play ugly and kick the ball long in a 2-0 win on the terrible RFK field. Whether we see that change again in this game remains a mystery.
The Timbers struggled in 2016 after winning the 2015 MLS Cup, but the Crew seemingly had an even tougher time of it in the wake of their loss in the Final. What made last season so difficult for the Crew and is there anything that Crew fans can point to that will keep that from happening again?
There were a couple of things. First, I think there was some hangover from the run to MLS Cup. I think some guys thought the team had made it and would be able to repeat the prior season's performance and that showed in early-season matches. This mentality put the team behind the eight ball and that became hard to dig out of the hole. By the time they did, the team was in poor form and struggled to climb back up the East, missing the postseason by six points.
Second, the team played a major portion of the season with out the three most expensive players on the roster entering the year. Kei was traded after his feud with Federico Higuain became public (those around here call it Penalty Gate), Higuain then got hurt and missed a large chunk of the year and Sauro did as well. Without the backbone of the team both offensively and defensively, it was certainly a struggle to win games, especially with the pressure mounting each week.
Some will say those are excuses, and they might be, but there aren't many teams that would be successful when most of its money isn't able to play.
Ole Kamara got lots of hype coming into 2017 after lighting up opposing teams last year and it certainly looks like the Crew will be depending on him to continue his goal scoring escapades from 2016. Is that realistic? And who are some of the less heralded players that Columbus can rely on to put the ball in the back of the net?
It's hard to say if it's realistic just yet. Obviously a great debut season (as I mentioned above), but can he sustain? I asked him about defenders now knowing how to play him better this year and he responded that he now knows more about them as well. We'll see which side wins out.
The thing that makes Ola so good is his movement. He knows how to get into the right spaces to be dangerous. This to me is the mark of a forward who should continue to score goals. When he's getting good service, that pays off.
So far this year, the offense has been decent, but doesn't appear to be fully clicking. Kamara did miss the last week or so of preseason due to a concussion, so he's had to come back from that. But four weeks into the season is plenty of time for that to remedy itself.
With that said, two goals through three games (and two penalty kicks earned) isn't a bad start to the year for Kamara.
As for other guys, they're all players MLS fans should be familiar with by now. Higuain, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay are the rest of the attacking front. Finlay and Higuain already have a goal a piece and Meram has two assists. As for another forward, that is a hole. Adam Jahn is the backup to Kamara, but he's very much a role player and I'm not sure he can repeat the five-goal season of a year ago.
Lineup: Zack Steffen; Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Nicolai Naess, Waylon Francis; Ethan Finlay, Wil Trapp, Artur, Justin Meram; Federico Higuain; Ola Kamara