The Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders kicked off at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 6, marking yet another match in one of the most heated (if not THE most heated) rivalries in the MLS. In the first few minutes, Sebastian Blanco was involved in a seemingly innocuous challenge. But the MLS is Back MVP couldn’t carry on. He tore his ACL on that challenge, effectively ending his season.
Blanco is crucial for the Timbers. He was having an MVP-caliber season and was an integral part of how the Timbers moved the ball forward and created goal-scoring opportunities. With his injury, Portland has been forced to adjust, trying to fill a Blanco-sized whole on the pitch.
When a player like Blanco goes down, it is extremely difficult to replace his production with just one player. Multiple players will have to step up to the task if they want to replace an unreplaceable player like Blanco. Obviously, the Timbers can still rely on Diego Valeri and Diego Chara to score some goals and move the ball up the pitch, but it is important to find other players to take the load off of these two.
It seems like Giovanni Savarese has found both his main men and those players’ supporting cast. There are four players who have consistently been rotated through the attacking lineup after Blanco’s injury: Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Felipe Mora, Jeremy Ebobisse and Yimmi Chara. They each contribute something different that has helped the Timbers become unpredictable.
Niezgoda is best when he is at the point of attack, but he is not an out-and-out or traditional number nine. Since the MLS is Back Tournament, he has scored two goals. He probably should have scored more, but he is still adjusting to a new league and new team. Niezgoda also has immense quality in front of goal. He displayed such in the Polish league with Legia Warsaw. He just needs a good run of form to gain confidence and get back to his clinical finishing ways.
But Niezgoda is far more than a goalscorer; he is a playmaker. He sort of reminds me of a Polish Karim Benzema. He drops deep, links up play and gets creative midfielders and wingers involved in the attack. He also never forces a shot. He is patient with the ball; if the shot isn’t on for him, he will make clever lay-offs and passes to players in a better position.
He has already made an impact for the Timbers in the regular season and the MLS is Back Tournament, but his impact will continue to grow as he gains confidence and his teammates start to anticipate his intricate one-touch passing and lay-offs.
Now let’s talk about Felipe Mora. The Chilean striker scored in three straight matches against Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders. He was the first Timber to score three goals in three matches over the course of only 10 days (Yimmi Chara became the second on Wednesday).
Mora provides something different than Niezgoda when attacking. Mora is more willing to take players on-on-one. He is more direct and is skilled at putting himself in the right place at the right time. Mora has shown that he does not need much space or time to score. He is instinctual in the box and can come up with a big goal when the Timbers need it.
He can also play alongside Niezgoda as a striker or a winger, showing his versatility and adding to the unpredictability of the Portland attacking lineup.
Mora isn’t the only striker with flexibility. Jeremy Ebobisse led the line throughout the majority of the MLS is Back Tournament and looked good. Since returning he has found himself on the left flank with either Mora or Niezgoda at the nine. He’s looked impressive there; Ebobisse scored against LAFC and San Jose. But his scoring is not what makes him stand out.
On defense, Ebobisse has dropped into the midfield line of four and has done well. He has the engine to track back and the quality to make important tackles. His position still allows him to get into scoring positions, but he can also help dictate the tempo, serve as a pressure-release valve and create for other players.
Ebobisse’s ability to create was best demonstrated in the 1-0 win against Seattle. The Sounders have been in great form, scoring 10 goals in the two matches sandwiched between two losses to the Timbers.
Seattle was pressing high up the pitch. The Sounders were trying to cut off service to Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson. Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Joevin Jones and Raul Ruidiaz all pressed high, leaving Cristian Roldan and Joao Paulo in the midfield.
The Timbers combatted this not by trying to play through the press, but by having goalkeeper Steve Clark bomb balls up the pitch in the direction of Niezgoda. The plan was not for Niezgoda to win the ball, but instead occupy the center backs. Portland looked to win second balls in the space vacated by the Sounders during their press.
This is exactly what happened in the build-up to the Portland goal. Ebobisse positioned himself in the open space, got the ball and took one touch to cut off and eliminate a defender. Ebobisse created a huge pocket of space to run into, forcing a Seattle defender to step to him.
As this was happening, Yimmi Chara took off with his blistering pace, making a slashing run into the box. Ebobisse was able to play a defense-splitting pass into the space vacated by the Sounders’ defender for Yimmi’s third goal in as many games.
This brings us to the player that has stepped up the most and has taken his opportunities in the absence of Blanco. Yimmi Chara has scored three goals since the restart and looks to be growing in confidence while having an enormous impact.
His dynamic, direct style of play is very different from that of Blanco, but it has added another dimension to the Timbers’ attack. His first goal came from an assist from his brother. The pass was good, but Yimmi did most of the work. He did a quick shoulder feint that forced the San Jose defender to take one step up, which was all the space Yimmi needed. He let the ball run through and took off into the box and chipped the keeper.
Yimmi’s second goal came in the second match against San Jose. He came on as a second half sub and punished San Jose around 20 minutes later. Ebobisse let loose from the top of the box and the San Jose defenders were caught ball-watching. Yimmi crashed the goal and tapped it in.
Yimmi provides much more than just goals. After his goal against the Sounders, his confidence was visible. He began taking on two to three defenders at a time, beating them and driving the attack forward. His speed and dribbling ability attract multiple defenders and when he is able to beat them. He creates acres of space for himself and his teammates.
It is a team effort to replace the output of Blanco, but it looks as though Saverse has found the players he needs to compensate. Niezgoda and Mora offer options at the point of the attack and Ebobisse has looked good in his new position. But the main difference maker has been Yimmi Chara. As he continues to get more minutes and with the team, expect him to score more goals and expect the offense to be run through him and Valeri.