This is it. The last of the season-opening road trip that’s dominated the conversation for most of the last two months.
Before the Portland Timbers return to Providence Park, however, they’re going to face an Orlando City team that looks to finally be getting healthy. Last week the Lions earned their first win of the season, a far-from-decisive 4-3 win over a second-choice Red Bulls side in Orlando. The backline and defensive midfield was a mess, but the return of Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan to full health made the Lions considerably more dangerous than they had been in the previous three games.
And the process of returning to full health has only continued this week for Jason Kreis’s team, with centerback Jonathan Spector returning to training after clearing the concussion protocol, Uri Rosell now training fully after a knee injury kept him from appearing thus far this season, and backup striker Stefano Pinho coming back into the team after an ankle injury.
This adds additional uncertainty to the Lions’ shape a week after Jason Kreis’s halftime move from his trademark diamond 4-4-2 into a 4-2-3-1 helped solidify the defensive midfield and protect the backline against the Red Bulls. Kreis, though, is stubborn, and if Rosell is ready to start it would be easy to see the coach talking himself back into the diamond. Given the length of Rosell’s layoff and his position as a defensive midfielder, though, it seems likelier than not that he won’t be in Kreis’s starting eleven. Thus, here’s my guess as to how the Lions line up:
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down.
First, the defensive midfield combination of Will Johnson and Yoshi Yotun is a little bit of an awkward one because both players are bona fide eights, and neither is really inclined to sit into the hole. Both are quality players and can contribute in the attack, but their partnership is prone to imbalance.
As almost all Kreis teams, the Lions are generally pretty aggressive in pushing their fullbacks, which is made all the more necessary by the relative narrowness of their front-four. Josue Colman is a promising young Paraguayan attacker, but he’s much more of a playmaker than he is a true winger. Accordingly, if — as is likely — Kreis starts Colman on the right wing, expect him to pinch in and look to get on the ball. On the left wing, Meram presents a very different look, as he likes to have a wide starting point, but come in as the Lions enter the final third and play more like a second forward. All told, the result is that Orlando City doesn’t have a ton of width in their front-four.
That, combined with the bombing-on fullbacks and the double-eight defensive midfield, yields a team that is prone to imbalance at times, which can expose a central defense outfit that hasn’t yet gelled. In centerback there’s some question as to whether Amro Tarek will play after he came off early last week. If he doesn’t, expect Lamine Sane to step in alongside Spector. Either way, if the Timbers can be compact defensively and work quick outlet combinations when they turn Orlando over, there’s a good chance they can find opportunities to expose those centerbacks in space as the Red Bulls did with success last week.
The Christmas tree formation that the Timbers have used to good effect the last two weeks, then, makes quite a bit of sense again in Orlando. Although the Timbers probably don’t need to sit as deep as they did against Dallas, if Gio Savarese’s side is compact, this OCSC team is one that can get bogged down, which will tempt the Lions to take some real risks in the attack. When that happens, it will be up to Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, and whoever starts up top — Samuel Armenteros would make some sense in this approach — to find the spaces Orlando has vacated and use those areas to get at the backline.
Don’t mistake some potential imbalance issues for a lack of quality, though. This Orlando side is considerably more talented than their four points through four games (three of which were at home) suggest, with their attacking four, in particular, presenting a nice mix of proven, very productive MLS players and up-and-coming youngsters.
If the Timbers can come away from Orlando with three points — or even to some extent a well-earned draw — Savarese’s team will be coming home from their season-opening road trip with some real momentum.