The Portland Timbers are back home after a long stretch of road games that saw the team rise to first place in the Western Conference before slipping back into second as the Vancouver Whitecaps surged up the table. Now the Timbers are set to host struggling Eastern Conference side Orlando City SC in a match that could see the side make up ground on the ‘Caps or open the door to Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders as all three teams compete for a bye in the playoffs.
Orlando are not eliminated from the playoff race yet, but seven points in five games is a big gap to make up. What has gone wrong this season since the club's blistering start to 2017? Where do you see the side finishing at the end of October?
Just about everything has gone wrong after April ended. But I think it can all be boiled down to a lack of offense. Obviously it’s harder to turn losses into draws and draws into wins when you’re not scoring much. The team often struggled to link the levels of the formation into a cohesive unit that could provide service to the attackers. This could be a result of playing three defensive midfielders in a 4-4-2 for the bulk of the year but the team took steps during the transfer window to remedy that. The lack of offense put a strain on the defense and every error, unlucky bounce, and/or bad call was magnified – and this season has seen its share of all three of those.
The likely finish for Orlando City is anywhere from seventh to ninth in the Eastern Conference table. The team has been on a decent run of late, including games against Columbus and Vancouver that seemed deserving of more than the one total point gained in those contests. However, the schedule gets tougher from here with a trip to Portland that kicks off a stretch of three games in just a seven-day period.
The trade for Dom Dwyer made headlines around the league over the summer and now it appears that he and OCSC leading scorer Cyle Larin are figuring out how to play together after hanging three on Atlanta United last weekend. How are those two most effective together? What does the future hold for the pair?
I think the biggest thing that they do is worry the back line. If you pay too much attention to one, the other can hurt you. In addition, Dwyer has served in two perfect crosses to set up Larin goals in the last couple of games. His passing is well ahead of where Larin’s is and hopefully the young Canadian can improve in that regard.
As for the future, it remains to be seen. Larin could be sold this off-season if teams pony up the right amount of cash that the club is looking for, but if he stays, it could be an effective partnership for 2018. Dwyer gets into dangerous spots and is good off the ball so he theoretically will be able to score on some of the saves Larin forces goalkeepers to make And, if he can continue to read Larin well and provide quality service, Cyle’s output should improve as well. The main thing the club needs to do is to sign more guys like Yoshimar Yotun, who can get that ball to them in dangerous areas and on time.
Orlando have given up 47 goals this year, the third worst mark in the Eastern Conference; what is going on with the Lions' back line and what cracks will the Timbers be looking to exploit on Sunday?
It’s a bit misleading to simply look at the goals total when you consider that a fourth of those came in three games at Chicago, Houston, and New England. The recent injury to Jonathan Spector hasn’t helped it either. The back line has been mostly pretty good. The midfield and even the strikers have put them under stress at times by either not supporting them properly with good team defense or by turning the ball over in a bad spot.
Spector’s participation is questionable at this time due to a knee injury that was aggravated Saturday at Atlanta. If he can’t play, I look for Portland to simply try to put the center backs under pressure and wait for them to make a mistake. I’m honestly not sure who Jason Kreis will play on Saturday, but it will be two of the following: Tommy Redding, Jose Aja, Leo Pereira, and Seb Hines. The first three of those are young players who have played well while paired with Spector but have not fared nearly as well when teamed up with the others. Hines has been hampered by his mobility in the past but looks better this season after knee surgery. He’s slow but at least he has some lateral movement now that was missing in the past and he’s good in the air. If Hines plays, the Timbers will try to beat him with speed.
Lineup Prediction: I’m not sure what Cristian Higuita’s or Jonathan Spector’s availability will be as of now, so I think we’ll see: Joe Bendik; Donny Toia, Seb Hines, Tommy Redding, Scott Sutter; Kaká, Antonio Nocerino, Yoshimar Yotun, Giles Barnes; Dom Dwyer, Cyle Larin.