The Story So Far
Ahh, you smell that in the air? No, I’m not talking about the first notes of Spring. I’m talking about the sweet aroma of freshly watered turf, gasoline for Timber Joey’s chainsaw, and green & gold smoke bombs. It’s the smell of soccer in the Rose City. MLS is finally back.
The Portland Timbers open their 2020 regular season against Minnesota United FC Sunday afternoon at Providence Park. Not only is this a rematch of the 2017 and 2018 home openers, but it’s also a rematch of last Wednesday’s preseason matchup, which didn’t feature many starters as both sides were heavily rotated.
The past two season openers between these two teams have featured a whopping 11 total goals, so you can bet that the 2020 edition is going to have some fireworks. But can the Timbers ensure that it’s the type of fireworks that have the Timbers Army cheering?
What to Watch for
Minnesota United FC (0-0-0, 0pts)
The Loons are coming off of their best season in MLS history, so hopes are high. They finished 4th in the West and made the playoffs for the first time, hosting a first round matchup in their shiny new home of Allianz Field, where they would eventually fall to the LA Galaxy. Despite a successful season, Minnesota is undoubtedly looking to build off their 2019 success in 2020.
They have made some key changes to their squad in order to do so. Out goes Designated Players Angelo Rodriguez and Darwin Quintero. In comes new Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla, who has already introduced himself to Portland fans by scoring in the preseason game last week. Former Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone, who had a stellar season and was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, turned down a new contract and departed this offseason. The Loons filled the void by trading for former LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller.
Outside of those additions, the roster for Minnesota remains largely the same from 2019.
Much of Minnesota’s improvement last season was built on the back of their much improved defense, and they will no doubt lean on it again in 2020. Led by 2019 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara in central defense, and “oh god this guy again” Osvaldo Alonso in central midfield, the Loons have proven adept at stepping to attackers and winning the ball in confident fashion.
That bodes well for their attack, as when playing on the road Minnesota will largely look to stay compact defensively and attack on the counter. Ethan Finlay is a consistent threat on the wing (he also scored against Portland in that 4-2 preseason loss) and he will be one of the main targets for Minnesota as they look to spring the break, as will the new target man Amarilla. With dangerous fullbacks Romain Metanire and Chase Gasper overlapping and providing width, and attacker Kevin Molino pulling the strings, Minnesota can pose a real threat with the ball. The young Uruguayan DP Thomas Chacón can also come off the bench if the Loons need a spark, too.
Their roster is solid and their talent is apparent, but that’s not to say they are without their weaknesses. Alonso and Opara are a year older and their legs are carrying another season of minutes, so it is an open question of whether they can be the lights-out game changers they were last season, or whether they have lost a bit of a step. In addition, with their fullbacks poised to push high Minnesota may be able to be exploited if the ball is won back quickly. Also, Miller’s shot-stopping ability is squarely in the “okay, but not great” category, and he is prone to make some... let’s say “questionable” decisions in distribution or when coming off his line. So you can expect there to be chances for the Timbers to score, whether by design or by error.
Portland Timbers (0-0-0, 0pts)
Look, we don’t really need to rehash what last season was for the Portland Timbers. Between extended road trips, forward drama, contract consternation with Diego Valeri, and an earlier than desired playoff exit, 2019 was squarely a disappointing season. The expectations are high for this team, and that is no less true going into 2020.
To meet those expectations, Gavin Wilkinson and co. were allowed to open up their wallets a bit. They re-signed Timbers legend Diego Valeri to a TAM deal, and went out and reunited the Chará brothers by signing winger Yimmi Chará as a DP. They also signed prolific Polish forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda—but don’t expect to see him on Sunday, as he has been nursing a knee injury that has kept him out of the entirety of preseason. In his stead, new TAM signing Felipe Mora is most likely to start at striker. Add in the signing of Dario Zuparic to partner Larrys Mabiala in the defense, and Portland looks to have bolstered the roster in all the right areas.
Insofar as I can see, the 2020 Timbers look to be a team that is trying to dominate the game while playing at home. Giovanni Savarese wants his team to step up and press, win the ball high, and then look to play direct in behind. Timbers fans are well aware of who they will be looking to play through—the dangerous attacking Argentine duo of Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri. They are frequently the focal point of Portland’s attack, with marauding fullbacks Jorge Villafana and Jorge Moreira providing width.
The ageless and peerless Diego Chará will anchor the central midfield, looking to win the ball and find an attacking player, and he’ll have a familiar face to look for in his younger brother Yimmi. The Colombian winger adds a new dimension to the attack, and may be the key for unlocking the team’s full potential. Mora will be eager to prove that he has the tools to lead the line for Portland and score goals. If he can’t, Jeremy Ebobisse, new contract in hand, is coming off a career year and is ready to come off the bench and prove 2019 wasn’t a fluke.
We’re all excited for Sunday, however the lead up to it has been a bit of an up and down affair for the Timbers. After three wins in Costa Rica against local opposition, the three preseason games in Portland have been a mixed bag. A 2-1 victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps was a nice opening to the preseason tournament, but the following two games raised cause for concern. You could argue that the aforementioned 4-2 thrashing suffered at the hands of Minnesota is explainable due to the lineup featuring mostly reserve players, but the 2-1 loss to New England in the final dress rehearsal cast a bit of a cloud of doubt over the team going into the opener.
It was less of the results, but more of the nature of play that caused many fans to frown. The defense consistently lost track of runners in transition, with attackers finding themselves open at the back post in particular at an alarming frequency. Villafana and Moreira left gaps in behind too often in the preseason, forcing the likes of Valeri to rotate back to defend- with subpar success. Minnesota will no doubt be looking to exploit those spaces.
There also is the specter of last year’s attacking futility still hanging over this team. During the ending stretch of the regular season, opposing teams would come to Portland, sit deep, and dare Portland to break them down. When Portland’s attacks couldn’t find a way through, the Timbers never really looked to have another plan except whip in cross after cross and and hope that someone gets a head to it. And as successful as that plan may be in FIFA, it proved to be wholly inadequate in real life.
If Portland’s 2020 is to get off to a good start, they will need to figure out how to break down Minnesota’s anticipated lower block, and have a better attacking strategy than just mashing the cross button on the controller. The team invested in the attack, and Sunday is the time to show if that investment pays off.
2020 will be the first season since 2017 that Portland opens the season at home. The Timbers had extended road trips to open the 2018 and 2019 seasons due to the renovation of Providence Park.
The Timbers have historically dominated their home openers, going 5-1-3 since 2011. The sole loss came in the form of last year’s 3-2 at the hands of LAFC in June.
Portland went 4-2-0 in their preseason, with a +4 goal differential over the course of the six games. In the three games at Providence Park, Portland had a -2 goal differential.
Minnesota finished with a club record 53 points last season, and featured the second best goal differential of Western Conference playoff teams with +9.
The home team has dominated proceedings in this matchup, with last season’s scoreless draw in Portland the first time the away team has picked up points in six regular season meetings.