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Preview: Portland Timbers vs. LA Galaxy

Timbers will have to tighten up in defense if they are going to stop the in-form LA Galaxy.

Los Angeles Galaxy v Portland Timbers - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After allowing seven goals in the last two games, the Portland Timbers will be tasked with slowing down the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday September 2. This did not look like such a tall task a few weeks ago.

In the MLS is Back Tournament, the Galaxy was unable to make it out of a tough group that included the Timbers, LAFC and the Houston Dynamo. The Galaxy lost their opening match to the Timbers 2-1 and were then utterly embarrassed by LAFC in a 6-2 drumming. They ended their tournament with a draw against Houston.

It looked like things could go from bad to worse for the Galaxy because they reopened the MLS season against their rivals, who thrashed the Galaxy a few weeks before. Instead, the Galaxy used the match as a launching pad for improving their form.

LAFC hosted the Galaxy at the Banc of California Stadium in what they hoped would be another rout of their rivals. Instead, LAFC looked lethargic, and the Galaxy dominated the match. The Galaxy came out 2-0 winners with goals from Sebastian Lletget and Ethan Zubak.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s team continued their fine form against San Jose in their most recent match. On August 29, the Galaxy beat the Earthquakes 3-2 at Dignity Health Sports Park.

The Galaxy are a team in form and will be looking to continue racking up the goals against a Portland defense that has looked extremely porous.

Real Salt Lake v Portland Timbers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

LA Galaxy Setup

The LA Galaxy is a very fluid and dynamic attacking team. The center backs are patient in possession and try to play the ball to either Perry Kitchen or Joe Corona. One of the two central midfielders drops deep and receives the ball from the defenders. From deep in the midfield, they attempt to progress the ball and set the tempo.

Corona and Kitchen are most effective when they play sharp, line-breaking passes to the feet of one of the four attackers. The four-man attacking line usually includes Ethan Zubak, Julian Araujo, Sebastian Lletget, and Cristian Pavon (while Javier Hernadez is sidelined by injury).

Pavon and Lletget typically drop into the attacking midfield to receive these line-breaking passes. The pass immediately eliminates at least one line of defenders from the play. Then, the ball receiver turns to run into space or plays a quick flick in behind to another on-rushing attacker. This is one of their most effective attacking patterns because it allows their creative players to run at defenses with a numerical advantage.

The Galaxy are also very dangerous on the wings. Against San Jose, Pavon terrorized left back Tommy Thompson. The Argentine was able to get to the end line and put in dangerous crosses, but was most successful cutting in on his right foot. Portland’s Chris Duvall will have his hands full with Pavon. Duvall struggled against Justin Meram of Real Salt Lake and will have to bring his A game if he is to slow down the more dynamic Pavon.

Another area of concern for the Timbers will be set pieces. Real Salt Lake proved that the Timbers struggle defending set pieces. Real Salt Lake punished Portland multiple times after winning the second ball.

Against San Jose, the Galaxy showed their prowess on corner kicks and free kicks. Their first goal came from a Lletget free kick that found the head of Daniel Steres. The second Galaxy goal stemmed from a set piece that the Quakes did not properly clear. The secondary service resulted in a handball, and Pavon calmly dispatched the penalty. The winning goal came from an in-swinging corner that was finished by Lletget at the back post.

Portland was atrocious defending set pieces on Saturday and will have to tighten up in defense or they’ll be punished again.

San Jose Earthquakes v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Opportunities for the Timbers

Because the Galaxy are so fluid and dynamic in attack, they often leave a lot of space to be exploited at the back. LA Galaxy often have four players in their attacking line. This means the only midfield players are Kitchen and Corona. In possession, one of the midfielders gets higher up the pitch. When the Galaxy turn the ball over, they are susceptible to the counterattack.

San Jose often found space on the counter, but were unable to capitalize. In transition, the San Jose attack was able to run at one central midfielder and two or three defenders because the wing backs were caught up field.

The Galaxy center backs defend very narrowly and leave a lot of space on the wings. If the Timbers can get into space on the counter, the wide players should be able to take advantage of the wide areas.

The Galaxy also press high on goal kicks and throw-ins. Their press forced the Quakes into turnovers, but when San Jose was able to break the press, there were large amounts of space in both the midfield and opposite wide area to exploit in transition.

LA Galaxy struggled dealing with San Jose’s wide players when they cut inside on their favored foot. Cade Cowell was able to drive in on his right, without being pressured, and fired a great shot into the back of the net for San Jose’s second goal.

The Timbers have multiple players that can punish the Galaxy if they are not pressured on the ball. Sebastian Blanco showed against Real Salt Lake that he can cut in and punish a team, and the likes of Diego Valeri and Jeremy Ebobisse can as well.

Portland has struggled since being crowned MLS is Back Tournament Champions. The Timbers will have to solidify their defense and play with the same intensity they did in the bubble. This Galaxy team looks to be firing on all cylinders at the moment, but there definitely are weaknesses that the Timbers can take advantage of.

One thing is certain, however — if Portland do not clean up their defense, it could be another long night for goalkeeper Steve Clark and Timbers fans.