The last time the Portland Timbers went down to Carson, things, um, didn’t go so well. But that Timbers team was a very different one than the one that is currently rocketing up the standings. Portland head to California in the midst of an eight-game unbeaten run, which includes their current four-game win streak. The Timbers are a team in the ascendency and they are facing a foe that is spiraling - the LA Galaxy.
The Galaxy are still a talented foe and they’re one that is backed into a corner, which can make even the teams in the poorest form desperate and dangerous.
If the Timbers want to lock down their place in the top four of the Western Conference and maintain their momentum heading into the playoffs, here’s what they’ll have to do to get past the Galaxy:
Ignore the form chart
The LA Galaxy haven’t won a game since August 14. That’s a pretty long time without a win. The Timbers haven’t lost since August 21. That’s a pretty long time without a loss. It seems like Saturday should be a pretty straightforward Timbers win based on current form, right?
Nope. I am kindly going to ask you to forget how long it has been since the Galaxy won or the Timbers lost.
The reality is that form should not influence the way Portland approach this game for a few reasons. Yes, the Timbers are a team playing with confidence. But it can sometimes be easy to overlook road games with a big home match coming up, as is the case for the Timbers with a home clash against Vancouver looming next Wednesday. Form charts can belie the real quality of a team’s play - which kind of applies to the Galaxy.
The Galaxy have a -8 goal differential in their nine-game winless skid. That’s the exact same goal differential the Timbers posted between their last game against the Galaxy and their loss to Austin FC. The Timbers’ poor six-game stretch was arguably the low point of Portland’s season thus far but look at Portland now. The Timbers are flying high. While the two teams’ winless streaks were over different periods of time, the point is - yes, the Galaxy have not won in a while but it’s not exactly like they’ve been playing badly and they can turn their form around quickly.
In fact, the Galaxy actually have a positive expected goals differential over their past five matches (0.5, according to FBref). They’ve been a bit unlucky and haven’t been playing bad soccer.
It hasn’t happened in a while, but the Timbers have been caught coming out flat in important games on the road this year (cough cough, anytime they’ve played in Austin). Portland need to be sure they come out sharp in this game regardless of recent form. If they don’t, they could be in for a rude surprise from a Galaxy team itching to disrupt the form chart.
Play for the counter (but be wary)
The Galaxy are no slouches when it comes to controlling play. They’ve won the possession battle in essentially every game in their winless skid. Greg Vanney has his side committed to moving the ball around, playing direct, and creating chances by finding one of their wingers in behind or crossing to Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
Since the Galaxy will be at home, one can expect they will want to control possession on Saturday and that should suit the Timbers. Portland have gradually eased into their preferred identity of being a counter-attacking team, especially when playing on the road. They prefer to keep their lines tight, deny the opposition entry into the middle of the field, and then go forward in transition with direct and flowing attacks via their wingers or Sebastian Blanco.
It’s a formula that worked pretty well for them the last time they had an away day. Just look at what they did against LAFC:
You absolutely, without a doubt, love to see it. #RCTID pic.twitter.com/JW9yiKT7uI— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) September 30, 2021
Based on the way the Galaxy like to play, the Timbers will focus on defending well and counter-attacking at pace and will attempt to impose their will on the game by winning duels in the middle of the park.
But that doesn’t mean that the Galaxy’s possession game shouldn’t be feared. If you let them have enough time and space to progress up the pitch and play their wingers in behind, they’ll hurt you. Just look at what they did to LAFC:
Here we go again! 1-1 20 minutes in.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 4, 2021
Grandsir equalizes for @LAGalaxy. pic.twitter.com/rxnZN2XdzG
The highlight doesn’t show it but that build-up to the goal starts all the back with the goalkeeper. It’s been rare but the Galaxy have players that can combine to produce moments of quality. Whether it’s in possession or via Chicharito feasting on scraps in front of the goal - something he has literally built a career off of - LA are no slouches going forward.
Letting the Galaxy have more of the ball plays to Portland’s strengths but Portland have to be wary and alert for the full 90 minutes or the game could quickly get away from them.
Exploit the backline by ghosting the center backs
For all of the praise and qualifiers I’ve tossed LA’s way throughout this, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the Galaxy’s defense has been pretty bad.
LA has the worst goal differential out of all the playoff teams at the moment and out of the top 15 teams in the league by some margin. They’ve only kept four clean sheets this season and their last donut was way back when they notched their most recent win in August.
How can Portland take advantage of the porous Galaxy defense? By putting pressure on the center backs. LA have trotted out numerous combinations of central defender pairings throughout the season. The Galaxy are yet to settle on a preferred combo. That can lead to a lack of chemistry and could increase the chances of communication breakdowns on the backline.
And you know who just loves to take advantage of center back miscommunication? Felipe Mora:
You know who else loves to pounce on center back missteps and poor rotations and is doing so with a frightening lethality at an astounding strike rate? Jaroslaw Niezgoda:
Those are the types of opportunities that will likely be there for the taking against the Galaxy. When facing a backline that has a poor record, does not scramble particularly well, and features a rotating center back cast, Portland’s attacking forward corps will likely have chances. Whoever is on the receiving end of them (for what it’s worth, a Niezgoda start is not out of the question) will need to capitalize if Portland are to come out of LA with a result.