Well, Sunday was pretty fun.
The Portland Timbers kicked off their 2021 MLS Cup Playoff campaign with a bang as they raced past Minnesota United in the first round behind a virtuoso second-half performance from Sebastian Blanco.
Their reward? Playing on Thanksgiving on the road in the Western Conference Semifinals at the home of the top seed in the West, the Colorado Rapids.
Here’s what to expect from the hosts and how the Timbers can keep dancing in the playoffs.
The Colorado Rapids in 2021
The Rapids are the new “the team is the star” squad in MLS. They’ve built their roster around legacy MLS players and have made savvy moves to get strong role players. They have ridden a “win by committee” approach to the perch of the Western Conference.
After finishing third from bottom in the conference in 2019, Colorado finished fifth in 2020 but were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Minnesota United. But under head coach Robin Fraser, they’ve exploded in 2021.
A Coach of the Year candidate, Fraser is in his second full year leading the Rapids and he has molded them into an organized and stout unit. They started the year strong and spent most of the season lurking around the top of the standings. On Decision Day, the Rapids jumped into first and finished the season atop the Western Conference standings.
Tactically, they did so by playing some unspectacular but effective soccer. They vary their lineups, often featuring a back five: sometimes in a 5-3-2, sometimes in a 3-4-2-1, and sometimes even in a standard 4-4-2, as a variation. Highlighting their unpredictability, Colorado featured each of those three different setups throughout their final five regular season games (three wins, one draw and one loss).
Whatever their formation, Colorado’s onus is always to do no harm to themselves. Their focus is usually on defense first and on staying resolute and connected in the back. It paid off as Colorado finished with the second-fewest goals allowed in the Western Conference and the second-lowest expected goals allowed.
In the attack, Colorado is efficient. Built on the back of their effective defense, Colorado hasn’t scored as many goals as their fellow playoff teams. They finished sixth in the conference in goals scored and seventh in expected goals. However, when they score it matters and they are able to hold leads. They finished with the least losses in the conference and the third-highest expected goal differential per ninety minutes, according to FBref.
As far as personnel, Colorado has built their team around experienced MLS players. They’ve traded for standout league stars in all areas of the field. Those names include the likes of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Lewis, Kellyn Acosta, Lalas Abubakar, and Keegan Rosenberry, among others.
Everyone has stepped up and contributed. The Rapids have six players who have scored at least four goals this year, yet no player has scored more than eight goals. Michael Barrios’ eight goals make him their leading goal scorer (another intraleague acquisition, by the way). Unlike the rest of the playoff field, you could argue that the Colorado Rapids have no true star on the roster.
The closest you could come to a standout is central midfielder Jack Price. Price is the team captain. He’s been with Colorado since 2018 and endured the rough period before Fraser came in as head coach. He’s been a constant for Colorado and has also been effective. Price leads the team in assists with 12 on the year. In fact, that’s good for the second-highest assist tally in the entire league in 2021.
In short, Colorado have built an experienced, effective and efficient squad that is hard to break down. They don’t give up goals often and they find goals when they are needed.
What does the above all mean for the Timbers? It likely means that Portland are in for a tough fight on Thursday. Colorado will be hard to break down and difficult to beat. In fact, they’ve only lost at home once all season.
They do so by being strong in the back first and by using their strong midfield to snuff out any attacks. Price and Kaye, Colorado’s first-choice midfield, have been very effective at closing down space and winning back the ball. If they can’t stop the ball, then one of Colorado’s center backs has been adept at stepping into the midfield to do so. The back line is also strong in the air and has been pretty dominant on set pieces all year.
In the attack, I expect Colorado’s wingbacks and forwards to be their main offensive threat, playing out of a 3-4-2-1 formation. The bevy of solid attacking threats in Diego Rubio, Dominque Badji and Barrios gives Price and the wingers multiple targets to aim for. The attackers, along with the center backs, also provide a real threat on set pieces that will be tough to handle.
The Timbers will have their hands full with tracking the multiple runners Colorado likes to put in the box. If it’s not one of the wingbacks, it could be one of the late-arriving midfielders. The key to the game will be how well the back line deals those runners, as how well they track balls sent into the box.
Another key will be how well Portland can exploit space on the counter attack. The Timbers may initially come out pressing high but I fully expect this game to shift into Portland executing their ol’ “absorb and hit on the counter” strategy that they’ve leaned on all season while on the road. If the Rapids commit the numbers forward that I expect them to, there will be space to counterattack, especially in behind the wingbacks.
This goal that the Timbers scored against Real Salt Lake last month stands as a good example of the type of goal Portland could be able to score on Thursday:
If Colorado turn the ball over in midfield, then the Timbers need to go straight at the Rapids at pace via the magical Sebastian Blanco. This game actually sets up pretty well for Portland to play their preferred counter attacking style provided they can handle the waves of attacks Colorado is expected to throw at them.
And that’s something that the Timbers haven’t shown the most aptitude at handling in 2021, especially against the Rapids. They drew Colorado at home in a wild 2-2 draw and then fell 2-0 in a dud of an away match against the Rapids just about a month ago.
But because this is the playoffs, you’ve got to throw previous records out the window. It’s all about one game, one matchup and how you show up on the day. The Timbers showed last Sunday that when the time comes, they can show up.
Colorado is number one in the West for a reason. They will be as hard to beat as any team the Timbers have faced all year. But if Portland can build off of their solid opening game, and they come out focused and with a strong game plan, they have as good of a shot as any to pull the upset.
And now, I tempt fate and chance some kind of semi-optimistic prediction:
Timbers lineup: Steve Clark; Josecarlos Van Rankin, Larrys Mabiala, Dario Zuparic, Claudio Bravo; Cristhian Paredes, Diego Chara; Yimmi Chara, Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, Felipe Mora
Score Prediction: Timbers 2- 2 Rapids; After Extra Time, Portland advances 5-3 on penalties
Scorers: Rubio, Blanco, Barrios, Mora. Asprilla with the game-winning penalty kick.
We need some penalty drama for this to be a proper Portland playoff run, right? This is the likeliest place it’s going to happen. On the road, Portland will look to sit back and play on the counter. I don’t trust Portland’s defense to keep Colorado’s attack at bay but I do trust Sebastian Blanco and the rest of Portland’s attack to keep pace.
In the end, it comes down to the coin flip that is shots from the mark and I trust Portland’s penalty record in the playoffs (more so than I do for a certain team from up North).