The Portland Timbers are back at Providence Park and set to host their first visitors from the Eastern Conference this season with the New England Revolution in town. To get the low-down on tonight’s visitors, we turned to Jake Catanese of our sister blog, the Bent Musket.
New England got off to a slow start with losses in their first two games -- away matches against FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids -- before going off against Minnesota United to the tune of 5-2 at Gillette Stadium; are any of these results emblematic of how the Revs will play this year? What should Timbers fans be expecting from the side?
I think it's emblematic in the way that we expect most MLS teams to play - win your home games, get points on the road when you can. New England starting with three of four games on the road isn't unusual, but to have all three on the road to the Western Conference is kind of brutal. Having an early bye week due to a snowstorm might have allowed the Revs to get healthy but it also might have robbed them of a chance to build up some much needed chemistry.
New England will likely deploy the same 4-4-2 diamond formation they have all year, hopefully with Agudelo and Kamara up top with Nguyen as the playmaker at the top of the midfield. This is a team that had success in Dallas, although briefly, when they pressed and created turnovers. I've always liked the Revs on the counter rather than trying to sit back and absorb pressure for long stretches or building out of the back all the time. If New England starts breaking out on the counterattack, that's good news for them, and could mean a long day for Portland.
Kei Kamara and Juan Agudelo are perhaps the most interesting pair of forwards in the league; Kamara, 32, has had flashes of dominance since his sudden rise to the top of the goal-scoring charts in 2015 but seems to have reverted back to being a reliable low double-digit goal scorer, while Agudelo, 24, is just entering the prime of his career and remains tabbed as a player on the verge of breaking out -- a label he has held since first entering the league as a teenager in 2010. Are either of these players going to step up and be an elite striker in MLS for the 2017 season? Or are New England able to spread around their attack enough through other threats like Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, and Kelyn Rowe?
New England has largely been a team that has succeeded with an attack by committee strategy. Even with Lee Nguyen's heroics in 2014 when he was an MVP finalist, the Revs usually aren't reliant on just one player to score. However, Nguyen is the team's best chance creator and Agudelo is probably the striker more likely to breakout with a big season. Juan had injury issues last year but finished 2016 on a tear as he lead the Revs to five wins in their last seven games.
The midfield trio of Nguyen, Rowe and Fagundez will likely chip in their goals, not counting Lee's usual scores from the penalty spot. The Revs attack is based on speed and spacing, so whether it's the strikers combining passes with themselves or laying chances back for the midfielders, New England is going to create chances. What they were bad at last year was finishing them. There was also a curse or something on the goalposts cause the team hit the woodwork like a hundred times last year.
Lots of attention has been paid to the Rev's attacking players from outside New England (see above), but little has been said about the side's defense. After a below average defensive year in 2016 (54 goals allowed -- middle of the pack for the East and more than anyone in the West), how have New England changed things on defense? Have there been upgrades in personnel or changes in approach? How will they try to shut down this Timbers attack that has already notched nine goals at Providence Park this year?
New England's defense through three games seems vastly improved from last year. Antonio Delamea of Slovenia and Benjamin Angoua of the Ivory Coast have established themselves as the new starting centerbacks, shoring up a problem area on the Revs depth chart that has been an issue since AJ Soares left the team after the 2014 season. Aside from letting Maxi Urruti lose in Dallas for about five minutes and a few weird, fluke goals (Collen Warner's first for Minnesota last week in particular) the defensive four the Revs have combined seem up to the task and should get better as the season goes on.
Cody Cropper has been solid in goal as well through three games but the key addition might still be DP midfielder Xavier Kouassi. He was supposed to join the Revs midseason last year after signing a pre-contract but tore up his knee finishing the European season in Switzerland with FC Sion. Still rehabbing through preseason Kouassi has made one appearance/start, a 79-minute shift on his MLS debut in Dallas but he is the heir to Jermaine Jones and Gershon Koffie as the true holding midfielder/#6 role for New England.
And stopping Portland is kind of like stopping the Revs, it's a team effort since there's so many ways the Timbers can torch you. If it's not Fanendo Adi occupying the centerbacks it's Diego Valeri running through midfielder or Darlington Nagbe doing Nagbe things. Any one of those guys can do exactly what Urruti did for Dallas two weeks ago, make a couple of plays happen in a short time and suddenly you went from winning to losing in a ten minute stretch. The Revs backline has been very organized so far this year, but it might be the offense, and the counterattack in particular, that will help keep the pressure off the Revs defense.
Predicted Lineup: (4-4-2 Diamond) - Cropper; Tierney, Angoua, Delamea, Farrell; Fagundez, Kouassi, Nguyen, Rowe; Agudelo, Kamara
I'm going to drop Scott Caldwell to the bench because I want an hour of Kouassi's physical presence to deal with Portland for as long as he can. It certainly could be Rowe or Fagundez dropping to the bench to get Kouassi into the lineup if he's good to go. Aside from that, no changes from last week as the Revs keep Agudelo up top and Nguyen at the top of the diamond.
FINAL SCORE: I think this is going to be a very good national TV game, so I'll say 2-2. Then I'm going to get a proper week of sleep. So tired of these USMNT and MLS west coast kickoff times.