The Story So Far
It’s been just four days since the Portland Timbers suffered a painful, stoppage-time defeat at the hands of Minnesota United. After a controversial penalty decision cost the Timbers a point in the dying moments of Sunday afternoon’s game, the team will find itself right back inside the confines of Allianz Field on Wednesday afternoon where they will take on the Loons once again; this time in the semifinals of the US Open Cup.
The Loons started their Open Cup run with a 4-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City. They followed that win with an impressive 3-2 victory in Houston over the reigning cup champions before defeating USL Championship side New Mexico United 6-1 in the quarterfinals.
The Timbers, on the other hand, had arguably the tougher road to the semifinals. Thanks to a Brian Fernandez brace, they defeated the Sounders 2-1 at Cheney Field in their obligatory opening game against the Sounders. PTFC followed that up with two consecutive Open Cup games against Los Angeles opponents. They defeated the Galaxy 4-0 at Providence Park in the round of 16 followed by an even more impressive 1-0 victory over LAFC in LA thanks to a late Jeremy Ebobisse goal.
Regardless of the circumstances, Wednesday night’s game will be the most important 90 plus minutes of the season for both teams as they look to reach the finals of the competition for the first time in franchise history. And of course, with the trophy comes an automatic entry into the CONCACAF Champions League and a shot at the Club World Cup. The winner of the match will travel south to Atlanta, Georgia in a few weeks. The question is: will it will be a rematch of the 2018 MLS Cup Final, or will the Loons be serenaded by the Wonderwall once again?
What to watch for
Minnesota United (11-7-5, 38 pts)
While it has been just four days since the last time these two teams met, I fully expect both sides to play similar lineups to the ones that the coaches put forth last Sunday. The one big exception has to be the addition of Darwin Quintero into the lineup for the Loons.
Quintero, who has a team-leading seven goals on the season, missed Sunday’s game due to yellow card accumulation but will surely be back in Adrian Heath’s starting eleven on Wednesday night. Minnesota’s Colombian DP is a special player and will change the dynamic of the game, at least in an attacking sense. Quintero opened his MLS account in Portland last season and has gone on to have quite a few strong performances over the past year which included this hat-trick against Toronto FC last season.
With Quintero back in the fold, this Minnesota team will be a lot more dangerous in transition. Much like the Timbers, Heath likes his team to sit back in a solid defensive block before hitting the opponent on a quick counter-attack. This strategy could lead to a pretty stale game at first as both teams might look to sit back and entice the other to have possession, but once it opens up, it could be an absolute track meet.
Another thing to watch for on Wednesday night will be how both midfields fare against one another; after all, the team that can play through the midfield most efficiently will have an edge on the break. Diego Chara and Ozzie Alonso are two of the best 6s in the league and in front of them play some of the league’s most creative midfielders in Diego Valeri (12 assists) and Jan Gregus (8 assists). Both teams look to be pretty similar on paper, and that held up in MLS play last weekend. All it could take to win this matchup is an advantage in just one area of the field, and for both of these teams, that area looks to be the midfield.
For the Loons, this is one of the biggest games in franchise history and their most prominent game as an MLS franchise. What will be interesting is seeing the little adjustments that Heath has made as he has to show his full hand now. And of course how the team handles it will be something to look for as well. If Minnesota goes down and the game opens up, can they get themselves back in it? If they take an early lead against the Timbers, will they be able to hold it? Time will tell.
Portland Timbers (9-9-4, 31 pts)
As with Minnesota, it’s hard to see Gio making many changes from the lineup that he put out against the Loons just a few days ago. What can be expected to change is the Timbers approach to the game now that they are playing Minnesota for the last time until late September.
On Sunday, the Timbers couldn’t get much going on offense. Other than Sebastian Blanco popping up all over the place and creating some of the team’s best chances, a majority of the players were just unable to get too involved, especially in the buildup.
One proposed change talked about by many, both in Timbers circles and in the national media, has been the idea of starting Jeremy Ebobisse at striker and Fernandez on the wing. As has already been shown this season, the two seem to be at their best while on the field with one another. Fernandez hasn’t been as involved over the past few weeks as teams have discovered that the best way of defending him is by staying in front of him and not allowing him any space.
This was the book on Brian Fernandez in Liga MX – if you could keep him in front of you, you're ok. Lack of a true 9 in the lineup for Portland means MNUFC can just sit & keep their shape, and when Fernandez gets into the final third he has no options. pic.twitter.com/XWhY8gMakS— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 4, 2019
If Fernandez is on the wing, he can drop back into play more and be more involved, which will only benefit the Timbers offense, especially in transition. One interesting tidbit that MLS analyst Matthew Doyle brought up in his Armchair Analyst column is that while playing as a central striker, Fernandez has scored just four goals in 1,000 minutes in Liga MX. As a winger, Fernandez has 12 goals in 1,260 minutes. Just food for thought.
Another big question that the Timbers have yet to answer is how they will deal with a team that sits in a low block, allowing them possession. Often on the road, the Timbers have an easier time sitting back and playing their game on the break. However, the Loons did an excellent job of dictating their game on Sunday as it was the Timbers who had the bulk of possession (57%). Dealing with teams who play defensively will soon become less of an occasional problem and more of a commonality, especially as the Timbers play a majority of their remaining games at Providence Park. The Timbers have had a few opportunities to try and unlock a defense so far (draws versus Orlando City and Colorado) and have not found success as of yet. However, if the team can find a way to implement a successful game plan soon, they will be set up for success not just for the game against Minnesota, but for the rest of the season.
Whether it be throughout the MLS Cup run in 2015 or last year’s victories in Kansas City and Seattle, the Timbers have always thrived in single-elimination games. It’s a psychological advantage that the team holds over the Loons, and as they have proven time and time again: when they need to find the winning moment, they do. There will be big-time moments to be had on Wednesday night as well, and if the Timbers can execute and find them, then they will surely be headed down south for an MLS Cup rematch.
The last time the Timbers played in the US Open Cup Semifinal was in 2013 where they fell to Real Salt Lake 2-1.
This will be Minnesota’s fourth home game in the US Open Cup. The Timbers have only hosted one game and, if they win, they will have to play the championship in Atlanta.
Minnesota is 9-1-4 at brand new Allianz Field this season in all competitions.
Brian Fernandez leads the team with three goals scored in the US Open Cup this season. No other Timber has scored more than once in the competition.
The Timbers goal-differential in the US Open Cup is six. They have scored seven goals and conceded just once.