What injury crisis? The Portland Timbers looked just fine last week in dispatching the San Jose Earthquakes in a gritty away win, despite the long list of players inactive. It helped right the ship after a disappointing week, and buoyed a listing fan base.
The Timbers will have a chance to continue to right the ship on Saturday afternoon, when they host the Los Angeles Galaxy at Providence Park (12:30pm PDT, broadcast on ABC). And this ain’t your “penalty missing, six-goal conceding” Galaxy of 2020. This team is a squad reborn in 2021.
It will be a tough test, but here’s the three things the Timbers have to prepare for in order to beat LA and continue their positive momentum:
Keep track of “The Little Pea”
Any conversation about how to beat the Galaxy has to start with how to stop the league’s top goalscorer. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has been a completely different player than he was when he joined LA last year. After scoring just a pair of goals in 2020, Chicharito is setting the league on fire and currently leading the golden boot race, having tallied seven goals in just five games this year.
All of those goal have been scored by the Mexican national team legend doing what he does best — finding good spots and being a killer in the box. The first goal (out of an eventual three) he scored against the New York Red Bulls showcases everything that makes him so adept at goal scoring. He immediately recognizes the attacking phase, makes a good run to drift off the back shoulder of his defender, and puts himself in a perfect position to collect any ball that finds its way to the back post. Add in a dash of “Just clatter it home from the doorstep” and voila: The platonic ideal of how Chicharito scores goal:
The man is on fire @CH14_ gets his third of the 2021 season pic.twitter.com/hBGcB1AcaR— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) April 25, 2021
(Also, it looks like the California sunshine has done our old friend Jorge Villafana a world of good, because he is playing about as good as he ever has in MLS over the past couple months).
Think that that goal was just a product of the Red Bulls being too Red Bulls? Well, watch what he did in his second goal of that game:
1️⃣4️⃣ passes to a goal by 1️⃣4️⃣#LAGalaxy x @CH14_ pic.twitter.com/B1NUKayzCP— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) April 25, 2021
Chicharito again shows how smart he is at recognizing the phase of play, making a good run to find the space, and making no mistake once he receives the ball.
Both goals are emblematic of how extremely efficient Chicharito has been in 2021. This season, he has put seven of 15 overall shots in the goal, and scored all but one of his shots on target (penalties excluded) The goals are not a fluke; Javier Hernandez looks like he’s back.
If the Timbers want to have any hope of beating the Galaxy, they have to keep track of Chicharito when he starts to make attacking runs and exploit space in the defense. The presumptive Timbers center back pairing of Dario Zuparic and Bill Tuiloma (who has looked great, by the way) need to stay on their toes and communicate where Chicharito is, and make clean handoffs when tracking his runs.
The service for Chicharito hasn’t necessarily been “on a silver platter” level of quality. It’s more that just the Galaxy’s center forward has been so dang good at finding the perfect spot to finish off the play. If the Timbers can deny him that spot, then they’ll do themselves a world of good in neutralizing “the little pea”.
Be ready to zig when the Galaxy zags
Aside from Chicharito, another big factor in the Galaxy’s resurgence has been their new head coach, Greg Vanney.
The man who led Toronto out of the darkness has been tasked to do the same for the league’s premier franchise (let’s face it, the Galaxy are still the league’s darlings). And so far, he appears to have them on track.
Much of that has been due to his tactical flexibility in his lineups. His Galaxy sides have lined up primarily in a 4-2-3-1 to start their matches, but they have rarely ended most of them that way. Vanney has shown a willingness to shift his players on the field and change formations, and therefore change the way the game is played.
Take for example LA’s first match of the season against Inter Miami. Through the first roughly hour of that game, the Galaxy were stuck in the mud and with Chicharito isolated in the 4-2-3-1. Then, Vanney swapped in Ethan Zubak and shifted his team to a two forward 4-4-2 set up. The result? Chicharito scored two goals in ten minutes.
Chichabrace— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) April 18, 2021
2 for @CH14_ ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/pDFZ8bL3cG
The Galaxy would go on to win the match 3-2, and it was due in large part to the shift in formation and playing style.
Inevitably, a similar kind of shift will come on Saturday against the Timbers. Whether it’s to chase a goal (the best case scenario) or defend a result (the “oh god why can’t we have nice things at home” scenario), Vanney will make a personnel shift that will shift his team’s style of play.
The Timbers will have to be ready for it. They will presumably be playing the role of aggressors by virtue of being the home side, and therefore the onus will be on them to adapt in order to handle the Galaxy’s changes in order to control the play of the game and keep the initiative.
And losing that initiative has perhaps been the biggest thing that has doomed the Timbers thus far in 2021. They lost it in those fifteen minutes against Seattle, they lost it right at the start of the match with Dallas, and they lost it in the closing twenty minutes of their loss to Club America in Mexico. If the Timbers want to win on Saturday, they have to stay proactive and on the front foot, no matter how their foes try to outflank them.
Keep doing what’s been working: Unleash the Williamson
A lot has been written this week about how good of a player Eryk Williamson has been for the Timbers. As it should be — Williamson has been really freaking good this year. C.I. DeMann pointed out how he played basically every midfield position last week. He got two assists in that game. He’s been great. I would even go so far and say that Williamson has been Portland’s most dangerous player so far this season.
The analytics back up that claim as well. According to stats pulled from FBref.com, Williamson is quite literally leading all midfielders in the league in shot creating actions per ninety minutes. He’s also leading all midfielders in interceptions per ninety, which are inevitably turning into those shot creating actions.
And we all know how those are ending up. Let’s watch it again, cuz it’s just so pretty:
Pretty decent start.#SJvPOR | #RCTID pic.twitter.com/lwLNeqlN0Y— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) May 16, 2021
Right now, Williamson is the Timbers’ best bet if they want to create anything offensively. Diego Valeri, Felipe Mora, and Jeremy Ebobisse have thus far been misfiring. Williamson has been Portland’s most consistent attacking threat. And to score goals on Saturday, they will have to lean on him to continue to be that.
We’re still in the “it doesn’t have to be fancy, just get the ball in the goal” phase of Portland’s season. So therefore, you lean on what is working if it ain’t broke. And Williamson’s play in the midfield is anything but that. Until they get their primary attackers firing, the Timbers will have to rely on Eryk Williamson’s next act to beat LA tomorrow.