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The Timbers’ central midfield options

With Eryk Williamson off on Gold Cup duty, here are the directions Portland could go to replace him in central midfield.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers, a team hurting but not dead yet, are at the tail end of a two-week break from matches and are currently preparing for their attempt to start charging up the Western Conference table, starting with their Saturday night bout against FC Dallas.

And they are doing so while missing midfielder Eryk Williamson, the dynamic presence in the middle of the pitch. Perhaps the most consistent and most important Timbers player of 2021 so far, Williamson is currently off with the United States Men’s National Team at the Gold Cup, where he’s living his best life and achieving his dreams:

And it makes the job of righting the ship that much harder for the Portland Timbers. Williamson has been impactful in the midfield for Portland, and with him unavailable Portland simply does not have any ready-made replacements.

But the Timbers do, nonetheless, have players that can step into the midfield to attempt to make up for Williamson’s absence. Each different option reflects a different answer to “How do we win soccer games without one of our best midfielders?” It’s no small decision to make. So, what are those options and what do they say? Read on...

Renzo Zambrano or Cristhian Paredes — The Tried & True

Over the past two seasons, both Cristhian Paredes and Renzo Zambrano have stepped into Portland’s central midfield to spell starters. Prior to 2021, Paredes was the one who would step in next to Diego Chara in defensive midfield. This season, Zambrano has been the one to cover for the elder Chara brother and also provide depth next to him late in games.

Both players bring similar and familiar skillsets to the field. Paredes has been unavailable for much of 2021 due to an injury sustained in April, but we know the type of player he has been for Portland: A serviceable backup box-to-box midfielder, who can put in a defensive shift and also a fine if not spectacular job of linking up the attack.

He was subpar at both of those duties in 2020, but in the limited minutes we’ve seen from Paredes in 2021, it appears that he was on track to find his previous form again. His performance against Houston back in April was particularly indicative of his play. It was especially on display during his game winning goal, in which he shows his propensity for late arriving runs in the box, a key trait for a box-to-box midfielder.

Zambrano on the other hand provides a more standard defensive midfield option. Utilized both as a bench player for cover and as a starter next to Chara, his game is very similar to Chara’s, albeit not nearly as magical. He could conceivably be deployed next to Chara and play more of the traditional defensive midfielder role, thereby freeing Chara to play more as a box-to-box midfielder, something that the Godfather has done admirably in the past.

Either option would reflect an intent from Giovanni Savarese to try to stay as tactically consistent as possible without Williamson. Zambrano has seen significant minutes in 2021, so he has familiarity with the squad. Paredes’ skillset is the most similar to Williamson’s, and provided he’s healthy and match fit he could slot in next to Chara and do as close to a facsimile of Williamson’s role as he can.

It’s very likely that the coaching staff goes with one of the two above for the next few games. However, there was an old face recently brought in for perhaps this exact scenario. I’m talking about...

George Fochive — The Most Intriguing Unknown

The Timbers brought back Fochive for a reason, right? The 29-year-old central midfielder who was originally drafted by the Timbers in 2014 has played just sixteen minutes in 2021, exclusively as a late game substitute- probably most likely because of Fochive still continuing to build his full matchday fitness.

The challenge with not seeing much for Fochive yet is that he is still an unknown at this point. Statistics or performance data from his time abroad are hard to find, so we can’t really peg what type of player the Timbers have brought back.

When originally with the Timbers in 2014-15, Fochive played primarily as a defensive midfielder. However, in his time abroad in Denmark and Israel, Fochive appears to have shown more rangy tendencies and a knack to cover more of the midfield. Transfermarkt, which should always be taken with a few generous grains of salt, now lists his primary position as a central midfielder, rather than standard defensive midfielder.

One of the few videos I could find online that features highlights from his time in both Denmark and Israel (and also features some bumpin’ EDM) suggests that Fochive is indeed trending towards playing as more of a true box-to-box central mid, rather than purely a defensive one (despite the videos title):

The Fochive option is the one we know the least about, which might make it the most intriguing one. Could he be a more effective and impactful sub than Paredes has been? Could he provide more resolute cover than Zambrano has? Might he be the closest parallel to Williamson’s game that Portland has on the roster? He could very well be any of those three, and that possibility is enticing.

Choosing Fochive as the option to start would reflect a new direction from the coaching staff, and might provide a needed shot in the arm to a Timbers midfield which is desperately in need of one.

But what if the coaching staff decides not to try to find a like for like swap? They could conceivably go with...

A Formation Shift — The Wildcard

Giovanni Savarese has shown a willingness to shift Portland’s tactical setup in matches this season, in particular in using a back three/five look for several games. Whether it’s a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3, we’ve seen the Timbers trot out unfamiliar tactical looks. Doing so again could be a wildcard option for the team to temporarily replace Williamson.

The back three looks for the Timbers could provide a wrinkle to how Portland attacks, which could help cover for the loss of Williamson’s progressive dribbling and passing. Both the 3-4-3 and the 3-5-2 rely on wingbacks for width and on free attackers in the forward line to facilitate play in the attack. Leaning on areas other than the central midfield for unlocking defenses could conceivably be a way for the Timbers to cover for the lack of a top-end box-to-box mid like Williamson.

The main problem with the above option is that results with the above formations have been … mixed. The look was first utilized as a 3-5-2 in the latter stages of the home win against Sporting Kansas City to close out the game. Against Houston in the subsequent road draw (as a 3-4-3) it looked much more shaky, and against Minnesota it was quickly abandoned after conceding a goal in the second minute, which wound up being a 1-0 loss. Importantly, none of the above occasions of using the new formation have appeared to give Portland more attacking verve.

Having the 3-5-2 club in the bag isn’t a bad thing, but with a number of key players returning, it is looking likely that Gio will want to shift back to his preferred and familiar 4-2-3-1 as the standard set up. Therefore, in supplementing Williamson’s absence, the odds are higher that it will be one of the more standard player swaps outlined above than a longer term formational shift.

Each option represents a different type of solution to filling the Williamson-sized hole in the Timbers midfield, and each has its own unique pros and cons. Regardless of which option Giovanni Savarese and his coaching staff will go with, there is pressure on them to get it right. Because if they want to prevent this listing ship from becoming a sinking one, they are going to have to start winning games, Williamson or not.