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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 2, FC Dallas 0

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

Well, you can’t say it was because FC Dallas was more shorthanded than the Timbers. With Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, and Maynor Figueroa all out on either national-team duty or with an injury, it would’ve been fair before the game to call the Burn charred by injuries.

But then the Timbers lost both Liam Ridgewell and Roy Miller to injuries. Suddenly, things were a lot more even in the absence department.

And yet, the Timbers still came away with a comfortable 2-0 win at Providence Park on Saturday evening. That’s a very, very good result for the Timbers, who have now taken four points out of six from one of their chief Western Conference rivals, have won two in a row, and sit in second place in the West.

Deep Cuts

Darlington Nagbe is more productive on the left wing. Coming in on his right foot, Nagbe is both more goal-dangerous and a more creative attacking presence as a sort of Robin to Diego Valeri’s Batman.

In Nagbe’s absence, however, the Timbers have flipped Sebastian Blanco from the right to the left, and plugged a reinvigorated Dairon Asprilla back to the right. And there are signs that the move is making Blanco more productive, too.

In the first half on Saturday, Blanco was the most dangerous player on the field. With Vytas overlapping him, Blanco was smartest when he made the decision to use his left back as a decoy and carve up FC Dallas right up the gut.

And in the first 45 minutes on Saturday he did just that with regularity, playing the ball into the box or into Zone 14 rather than dumping it wide to Vytas. Here are all of Blanco’s open-play passes before halftime:

Even when he’s on the left, Nagbe doesn’t do this as much as he should. To be sure, the overlapper is a tool to use, but it’s not the only tool. And often Nagbe is quick to bail out to his fullback before looking to develop a more direct opening centrally.

Blanco, though, clearly prefers to operate centrally, and does so with greater success when his starting point is on the left. Watch how he times his pass through to Adi perfectly here:

Blanco knew he had Atiba Harris in an impossible position, and he made sure to not let him off the hook. The Argentine playmaker waited until Harris was forced to make a decision (in this case to step to Blanco), and then immediately played through the passing window that Harris opened wide.

That’s just quality number-ten-like work from a player who’s had a little bit of a hard time getting comfortable in the Rose City. And his emerging comfort on the left raises a question for Caleb Porter when Nagbe returns from his call to the national team: Should he keep Blanco on the left and move Nagbe back to the right, where he succeeded on Thursday for the national team in a similar (albeit not identical) role?

Porter was coy about the prospect after the game on Saturday, but it’s clear the question was on his mind:

That’s one of the reasons we signed Blanco, because we knew he could play both sides. We knew there would be times when Darlington was away on international duty and that’s also why we re-signed — you know, brought back — Asprilla, because we’d planned for this. So, yeah, that’s always an option, obviously.

The way [Nagbe] played [with the national team], he was playing kind of a pinched diamond, so it’s different. He also moved to the left, as well, when they flattened out and brought Dempsey off.

But Darlington’s good wherever he plays, and Blanco has the ability to play either side. So, yeah, clearly there’s something we can look at there.

Look at Nagbe’s attacking-actions map for the first hour against Trinidad & Tobago during which he was playing on the right side of a diamond:

That’s a whole lot of zone-movin’, ball-retainin’, and even box-breakin’ goodness from Nagbe. Now imagine something similar to that from Nagbe with Blanco as a more goal-focused attacker in the left channel, Valeri free above both, and Adi leading the line.

That could play.

What I’m describing is, in essence, a 4-2-2-2 with Valeri playing as a second forward. Although Valeri as a second forward sounds like a big departure from the Timbers’ system, the Timbers have low-key run out a similar look with their talisman at times this year. And, really, the difference between a 10 in a 4-2-3-1 and a true underlying forward in a 4-4-2 isn’t all that great.

Now, the Timbers still have some work to do if they’re going to get there. Most notably, they need to find a consistent overlapping option on the right to mirror Vytas on the left, which means either Zarek Valentin needs to get comfortable as a byline-to-byline fullback or Alvas Powell needs to pull his head out of his tutus. And they need to get Blanco to be that goal-sniffing attacking midfielder for 90 minutes, something he didn’t do on Saturday.

But for a team (and coach) that likes to throw a tactical wrinkle late in the year, bringing both wingers in and pushing into a 4-2-2-2 seems like a pretty viable October surprise. And they may be laying the groundwork for it right now.

Spotlight on...

Amobi Okugo, the Timbers’ quietly crucial depth utilityman.

There’s nowhere on the depth chart on which Okugo is better than fourth. And yet, in two important games recently the Timbers have called upon Okugo for significant minutes.

In Seattle, after David Guzman came out at halftime with an eye injury, Okugo came in a put in a perfectly respectable (if tactically ill-fitting through no fault of his own) shift. And again on Saturday Okugo entered the game just 26 minutes in after Liam Ridgewell went down and played a very solid 30+ minutes as a defensive midfielder. Except that wasn’t all, as on the hour Okugo was asked to step back and partner with Lawrence Olum as a centerback after Roy Miller also left early.

And the result? A clean sheet for the team and a tied-for-game-high seven interceptions for Okugo.

At 26, a lot of people are already throwing dirt on Okugo’s once-promising career. And, in fairness, he’s a long way from the MLS-elite number-six that many people thought he’d become after he broke out with the Philadelphia Union.

But if he can continue the reliably solid play he’s demonstrated in Portland, Okugo still has a nice, long MLS career still in front of him.

Stat of the Game

5 — The chances created by Dairon Asprilla against FC Dallas on Saturday, including the assist on Adi’s second goal. After three consecutive good performances, it’s fair to say Asprilla is in good form right now. How good? Here’s Porter again:

Asprilla . . . he’s playing his best soccer since he’s been here. No doubt about it. And I think, again, the biggest thing is he’s bought in. He’s bought in, he’s hungry, he’s doing all the little things he needs to do, he’s working for the team, he’s defending.

And he’s confident, too. That’s the big thing, he’s confident right now and he’s playing — he’s bringing to the table what we need him to bring. He’s playing direct. He’s playing as a one-v-one true right winger. That’s what we need. We need everybody to just bring to the table what they bring.

The other side of that one-v-one on Saturday was Aaron Guillen.

Poor, poor Aaron Guillen, who’s going to be waking up in a cold sweat after Asprilla haunts his dreams. But four weeks ago if you’d told me this was Dairon Asprilla’s attacking-actions chart, I’d have asked you to throw cold water on my face.

It’s hard to know at this point whether this is just a periodic upswing in Asprilla’s form or a longer-term breakthrough. Certainly the Timbers hope it’s the latter. But regardless, Asprilla deserves a lot of credit for two very good performances in Nagbe’s absence.

Man of the Match

Vote!

Poll

Who was your Man of the Match against FC Dallas?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Fanendo Adi
    (156 votes)
  • 24%
    Dairon Asprilla
    (108 votes)
  • 12%
    Sebastian Blanco
    (55 votes)
  • 13%
    Amobi Okugo
    (60 votes)
  • 5%
    Lawrence Olum
    (23 votes)
  • 0%
    Diego Valeri
    (4 votes)
  • 6%
    Other
    (28 votes)
434 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • Behold and marvel.
  • Referee Chris Penso, for what it’s worth, got the handball call technically correct. But what fun is that?
  • Though it wouldn’t have been called if that was Chad Marshall’s arm. Still salty? Still salty.
  • He looked close to breaking through last week, and Saturday night demonstrated that looks weren’t at all deceiving. After a six-week goal drought, Fanendo Adi got back on the board with one of his signature braces, which makes 13 in his time in Portland. It’s welcome sight for Timbers fans, as Adi’s goalscoring drought was one of the primary factors behind their downturn in form late in the spring.
  • We talked last week about how Adi needs to play through contact that would otherwise be worthy of a 50-50 penalty call, and the point regarding Adi is valid enough. But it’s also fair to point out that Adi gets a raw deal on those 50-50 calls. Here’s a good example:
  • To be sure, Harris’s shirt pull there isn’t egregious. But it’s also unambiguously illegal, and affects Adi’s ability to play the ball as he’s trying to separate from Harris to turn and shoot. Simply put, the shirt pull keeps Adi close enough to Harris that the winger-turned-fullback-turned-centerback can get a foot in. In that situation, a lot of attacking players would throw their arms in the air and flop backwards to sell the shirt-pull. Sometimes they’ll get that call, and it’s hard to say that’s wrong. But Adi didn’t in this instance; he played through. And so did Chris Penso, along, seemingly, with the rest of his colleagues on a regular basis despite preseason saber-rattling from PRO about cracking down on holding in the box.
  • So it’s hard to know what to tell Adi. If he plays through contact, he’s going to have to deal with more rough-and-tumble defending than any player in MLS and won’t get a good number of calls to which he’s otherwise entitled. On the other hand, if Adi tries to sell contact (even when it’s there), he’ll be relying on a referee corps that has clearly determined defenders should be permitted to do things to him that they’re not permitted to do to any other player in the league.
  • Liam Ridgewell’s most recent injury — which Porter stated postgame was a quad injury — re-raises an issue that the Timbers were certainly hoping wouldn’t rear its head again this year: Can they continue to go forward with Ridgewell on the payroll in light of his increasingly-frequent injury absences? As a TAM-level player, Ridgewell certainly isn’t cheap. Although he’s generally a good centerback when he’s on the field (he gets more flak than he deserves), the Timbers really can’t justify devoting that much salary-cap space to a centerback who can’t be relied upon to play significantly more than 20 games per year.
  • The questions bubbled up somewhat prematurely after Ridgewell appeared in only 22 games in 2016. One year, though, can just be bad injury luck. Through 15 games this season, however, Ridgewell has only appeared in nine, including Saturday’s game in which he failed to make it to the half hour. And now it looks like Ridgewell is staring in the face of another DL stint. Ridgewell has one more year on his contract, and injuries aside his form looks plenty good enough to play it out. But injuries can’t be set aside in this instance, and, as such the Timbers need to carefully consider whether they can afford to bring him back.