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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 5, Minnesota United 1

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MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers kicked 2017 off on the right foot.

A 5-1 win is a 5-1 win. And although the Timbers weren’t as flowing and uninhibited as they showed at times during preseason, they were well in control and, at the finish, dominant.

Points early in the season haven’t always been easy for the Timbers to come by. Friday’s romp over the Loons was just Caleb Porter’s second win in the month of March as head coach of the Timbers, and — with the exception of three semi-nervous minutes after Minnesota briefly pulled within 2-1 — they don’t come much more comfortably than they did for the Timbers on Friday.

Against an expansion side or not, the points are valuable. The Timbers’ preseason performance created an expectation for Caleb Porter’s team and, even though it wasn’t a perfect performance, Friday night did little to dispel notions that this Timbers team has the makings of a side that could make some noise in MLS.

Now they just have to do it.

Spotlight on...

Alvas Powell.

After a disappointing 2016, this season very much looks like it could be pivotal for Powell. With the Timbers investing in free agent Chance Myers, and the 22-year-old Powell transitioning from prospect to young, but seasoned defender, 2017 has the feel of a season in which Powell either takes a step forward or becomes an MLS depth piece.

Thus far it appears the former is the path the Jamaican is on. But don’t take my word for it; take Caleb Porter’s:

I think he’s had a really good preseason. He looks locked in; he’s focused. It’s always been — with Alvas — mentality. When he’s locked in and switched on, he has the right mentality, and he’s not loose, he’s one of the better right backs in the league. And so that was my challenge to him in the offseason when we met, and this preseason in working with him. That’s what I’ve been demanding out of him.

He’s no longer the young, wild stallion that can make mistakes, and go in and out of games, and have one game good, one game [bad]. He’s now been in our team four years and he’s been a starter for three, and it’s time for him to be consistent. Consistent on both sides of the ball, and he’s shown that. And I’m real pleased with him, really proud of his preseason and he did it this game, as well, for 90 minutes. Even though he didn’t get an assist, it’s probably one of his best performances.

And now I want to see it again, and again, and again for 90 straight minutes.

Powell has been significantly more stable on both sides of the ball in 2017. Throughout his first three-plus years in Portland, Powell was known for being an athletic and hard-nosed one-v-one defender, but a tactical liability and a disaster in possession.

Look at Powell’s distribution chart from Friday night:

Although he just missed on a couple crosses, he was near-perfect in possession, helping the likes of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco do their jobs. And in defense Powell was, quite frankly, dominant. On the evening, Powell won all seven of his duels (the only player to win each of his duels, and tying him for the most duels won in the game), and prevented Minnesota from completing a single box-entry from his side.

There really are no two ways about it: Alvas Powell was really good for the Timbers on Friday.

But as Porter said, the task now for Powell is to be able to put in performances like Friday’s on a weekly basis. If that happens, the Timbers may — as Porter suggested — have one of the better right backs in MLS.

Deep Cuts

There has been a lot of talk around MLS about the Timbers’ this offseason. The scouting report on the Timbers is that they’re stacked in the attack, but thin in back.

More than their stable of talent, however, perhaps the Timbers’ greatest strength is their balance in the attack. Built around the gravity of Fanendo Adi and the creativity of Diego Valeri, the Timbers sport two wingers who like to play centrally and in the channels and two fullbacks who can get forward and either unlock the byline or provide service into the box.

The Timbers really don’t have an obvious weakness in their attacking scheme and, as a result, have the flexibility to take whatever the opposition chooses to give them.

On Friday Adrian Heath’s side came to Portland and sat all three of their central midfielders — Rasmus Schuller, Mohammed Saeid, and Colleen Warner — deep to shut down the middle. This makes sense: Given what the Timbers have in the attack, shutting down the middle and making somebody other than Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri beat you isn’t a bad approach.

Except the Timbers countered by pushing Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco a touch wider than usual, unchaining Valeri, and using the fullbacks in combinations to hit Minnesota wide. Here’s the Timbers’ attacking midfielders’ (Nagbe, Valeri, and Blanco) distribution map:

For three guys who like to play in the middle of the field, that’s not a lot of play in the middle of the field. And yet, the Timbers were still well in control in the attack and, with no central attacking presence to speak of, David Guzman and Diego Chara easily cleaned up the rest.

Simply put, the Loons sold out on Friday to take away the Timbers’ attacking Plan A. As a result they got steamrolled by Portland’s Plan B. And with as balanced as the Timbers are in the attack, there’s no telling right now how deep Caleb Porter’s side can go into the alphabet.

Stat of the Game

11 and 6. David Guzman’s recoveries (which Opta defines as when a “player wins back the ball when it has gone loose or where the ball has been played directly to him”) and interceptions (which Opta defines as when a “player intentionally intercepts a pass by moving into the line of the intended ball”), both of which were game highs. Guzman was, to put it simply, dominant in midfield, and people are starting to take notice.

Finishing Bullets

  • The Timbers weren’t as dominant in either shots or possession as they were during preseason, barely outshooting Minnesota 13-11 and being out-possessed by the Loons 53-47. These weren’t by design -- after the game Porter credited United with keeping more of the ball than the Timbers wanted to concede — but, quite obviously, the Timbers managed. I don’t expect that to be a trend this season (like 2013, I expect the Timbers will have more than their share of possession and shots), but Friday’s performance is a nice indication that the Timbers can be successful without dominating the ball.
  • It’s official: Amobi Okugo has surpassed Ben Zemanski on the depth chart. With Lawrence Olum slotting in at centerback (fairly nicely, once again), Okugo — not Zemanski — was the defensive midfield depth on the bench. This is, of course, a fluid situation, and Zemanski will have every opportunity to earn his spot back. But Caleb Porter’s gamed 18 on Friday was an indication how far Zemanski has fallen.
  • Finally, here’s a fun bit of trivia: