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Portland Timbers at Toronto FC: Preview Interview

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

The Portland Timbers are headed over the border into Canada to take on Toronto FC this weekend. Taking points in Toronto has been a difficult proposition this season — the Reds are still unbeaten at home after 23 games — but with a handful of results on the road hope remains that the Timbers can get a result.

To get a better look at Saturday’s opposition, we talked with Oliver Platt of SB Nation’s TFC blog Waking the Red and he updated us on the status of the league-leaders.

The Reds currently sit on top of the league-wide standings with a staggering 1.91 points per game, 0.15 PPG better than the pace set by FC Dallas when they won the Supporters' Shield last year and 0.35 PPG better than TFC's own 2016 mark. What have been the major differences between last year and this? And is there anything to make you think that this pace is not sustainable through the end of the season?

The major difference has been that Toronto didn't really figure themselves out until the very last game of the 2016 regular season, when they switched to a 3-5-2 formation and everything just clicked. That was borne out of the fact that neither Eriq Zavaleta nor Nick Hagglund was particularly convincing as Drew Moor's partner in a back four, but they both excelled either side of him in a back three. Finally getting the defence right had a whole host of knock-on effects further forward that would take a long time to go into here.

TFC had that formula figured out going into the current season, got better by signing Victor Vazquez and Chris Mavinga and saw young players such as Marky Delgado, Raheem Edwards and Alex Bono take significant steps forward. They've learnt a lot as they've built this team over the past three or four years and now look close to the finished product.

There is no reason why they can't keep this pace up given their first half of the season looks more difficult than the second in terms of the schedule, but dreams of topping the two points-per-game mark have been dampened a bit by them tripping up in what looked like straightforward games against Colorado and D.C. United.

Despite being widely recognized as one of the league's best players, it seems like there has been relatively little hype around Giovinco this year. How is the season going for the Atomic Ant and how has his role in the team changed with the introduction of an assist-machine like Victor Vasquez? Has that upgrade taken the pressure off Giovinco or just the spotlight?

While Giovinco is not getting as much attention league-wide as he was in 2015, no TFC player comes under more scrutiny than him in Toronto.

By mid-June he had delivered a couple of stand-out performances but there was a nagging feeling that he didn't look right and a lot being said and written about him. His underlying numbers were down across the board, he had stormed off after being substituted in one match and complained on Instagram that he was ready to play after an injury when the medical staff was saying he wasn't.

But my feeling was always that the team was protecting Giovinco a bit more than usual and trying to do everything to avoid a repeat of the MLS Cup final, when he cramped up at the end of a fairly ineffective performance, and slowly a pattern is emerging of Giovinco showing up in a big way in the most important games.

He scored two against Orlando when they were the hottest team in MLS earlier this year, two against Chicago, two in the second leg of the Canadian Championship final (including a last-minute winner) and just ripped apart New York City FC at the end of July (two again).

When it's all said and done, those are the games he will be judged on. So far, so good, but if things go to plan there will be several more even bigger ones to come.

For the second year running, Toronto have the best defensive record in the Eastern Conference and are only beaten out overall by notoriously stingy Sporting Kansas City overall. What are some of the key pieces to the Reds' defensive success and are there any weaknesses that the Timbers will be looking to exploit on Saturday?

There have been three big factors in fixing the defense over the past couple of years; switching Michael Bradley to a holding-midfield role, the signings of Moor, Steven Beitashour and Clint Irwin (though Bono has now replaced him) and the aforementioned switch to the 3-5-2.

Though their record is pretty good this year, a problem has been getting their best unit on the field together consistently. They've had some seriously bad luck with injuries - first there was Moor's cardiac arrhythmia, and now Beitashour is out having been the victim of a challenge so bad he required surgery on his pancreas (incredibly, he finished the game). Hagglund also tore his MCL.

Toronto are at their worst and most vulnerable when opponents clog up the middle and their attempts to find a route to goal out wide don't work for whatever reason (missing personnel, poor individual performances, etc). They then start trying to force the ball through the middle and create turnover and counter-attack opportunities galore.

Lineup: 3-5-2, right to left: Bono; Zavaleta, Moor, Mavinga; Hasler, Delgado, Bradley, Vazquez, Morrow; Altidore, Giovinco.