The Portland Timbers travel down to Los Angeles on Sunday for the first away day of the fledgling 2022 MLS season. They face Los Angeles FC, a team fresh off of a 3-0 beatdown over the Colorado Rapids, last year’s top regular season team in the Western Conference.
Playing LAFC has been a fairly friendly prospect for the Timbers over the past two seasons. The Timbers are unbeaten in their five previous outings against the black & gold and swept them in 2021 with three straight wins.
Portland hasn’t lost to LAFC since October 2020 but the Timbers probably won’t be able to lean on that record this weekend. While this LAFC team may look similar personnel-wise to the team Portland swept last season, they will very likely be a much tougher out due to some key additions on the field and an injection of new perspective on the touchline.
LAFC has a new coach in Steve Cherundolo, and a lot of new (fairly familiar) faces in their squad, particularly in the midfield. They added Kellyn Acosta and Ilie Sanchez to bolster an already solid midfield unit, and also upgraded in goal by adding goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau from Vancouver for a boatload of GAM. That means that an already talented team got a dose of experience and quality.
The keys to the Timbers continuing their strong form against LAFC starts with understanding that they’re still, y’know, LAFC. A team that is dangerous in almost every attacking sequence and, when they are on, seem to be able to score goals for fun.
Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese understands as much. He knows that despite having a new coach, this is a team that retains a lot of its identity, and performs at a high level.
“I think he’s recognized that there’s some strength that he can continue to utilize,” Savarese shared in his pregame media availability, when asked about Cherundolo’s influence on his team. “That you see, you know, that the team still does in the last game that they played against Colorado.”
One of those biggest strengths, that is likely going to be giving Rapids fans nightmares, is Carlos Vela. After spending much of 2021 injured and out of form, the former league MVP and Golden Boot winner flew out of the gates in his first game in 2022, netting a hat trick in just over twenty minutes of game time.
Stopping Vela will be essential for the Timbers if they want to limit that dangerous LAFC attack. As evidenced by the third goal he scored last week, Vela’s left foot, after cutting in from the right, is still his most dangerous weapon.
A HAT TRICK WITH 40' LEFT TO PLAY.— LAFC (@LAFC) February 26, 2022
@11carlosV #LAFCvCOL 3-0 pic.twitter.com/cr2yPCe4Iv
The Timbers will have to on Sunday if they want to prevent Vela from finding the net. What’s their plan for doing so? Simple, according to Savarese. “Making sure that we cut the areas that he feels more comfortable,” Gio shared. “Be aware of his wrongs, and just make sure that we try to disconnect some of the things that he does in their team in order to make sure that we manage the situation.”
Still, LAFC’s attack is not just simply Vela. They have a fearsome front line and midfield in support of it. That attack feasts off of turnovers via counter-pressing, another key carryover from last season to this season.
One of the players who will be facing the brunt of that attack on Sunday is Zac McGraw, and he recognizes the danger — and how to combat it. “They’re very lethal on the counterattack,” McGraw shared. In keeping that counter in check, the defender knows what the key is for the Timbers.
“It’s just a manner of being smart defensively, being smart with how many numbers we send forward, because they have great players in Carlos Vela, Brian Rodriguez, Opuku, and Arango. It’s really just a matter of being smart of who we send forward, how we send forward, and who we bring back.”
Being smart really is the name of the game on Sunday. Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes will have to stay mobile and alert in Portland’s midfield to handle LA’s counter-press, and be clean in the ball to avoid costly errors in distribution. The fullbacks, Claudio Bravo especially, will need to be lively to keep the likes of Rodriguez and Vela in front of them. Like McGraw mentioned, the Timbers as a whole will need to be aware of how many numbers they are committing forward, how they are deploying those players, and keeping offensive and defensive balance.
If they can get the attacking balance right though, we know that Portland can score goals. They will very likely look to do that via their patented and dangerous direct counterattacking- something that this particular group of Timbers players seem well equipped for.
How well Yimmi Chara, Santiago Moreno, and Dairon Asprilla can find space and outlets on the counter will say a lot about Portland’s prospects on Sunday. Those three players can interchange well in and around the box, and if they can get the time and space to do so then the Timbers can keep LAFC honest, and will in turn have their chances to score.
The main player to watch to generate those chances is likely Moreno. He had a great outing against the Revs, and with Portland likely keen to lean on their counterattacking play it sets up well for his strengths. Strengths, by the way, the include hitting passes like this:
Santi's pass. Dairon's finish. *chefs kiss* #RCTID pic.twitter.com/4B6YwsNJWR— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) February 27, 2022
Someone who the Timbers would love to see get on the end of a Moreno pass like that is Jaroslaw Niezgoda. The Polish striker was active in the buildup last week, and combined with the attacking line well, but he didn’t find the net.
With Niezgoda standing as Portland’s lone healthy forward, he will need to start chipping in on the scoresheet sooner or later to keep the Timbers offense afloat. The sooner Jaro can get off the mark in 2022, the better it will be for the Timbers. Sunday would be a fabulous time for him to do so.
Predicted Timbers XI (4-2-3-1): Ivacic; Van Rankin, McGraw, Tuiloma, Bravo; D. Chara, Paredes; Moreno, Y. Chara, Asprilla; Niezgoda
Predicted LAFC XI (4-3-3): Crepeau; Escobar, Murillo, Mbacke, Palacios; Acosta, Sanchez, Cifuentes; Vela, Arango, Rodriguez
Sunday will be fast, intense, and will (like last week) have goals. The Timbers showed last week that they have the grit and belief to hang in a game that might not be going their way, and the attacking firepower to do so. But we also saw that the Timbers aren’t airtight defensively, something that LAFC is keen to take advantage of.
Portland’s success will probably come down to how well the Timbers can limit the damage in the back, and if they can find space moving forward. If they keep the game in reach, a late goal to their benefit could be the difference. If the game starts to run away from them, or they get suffocated by the black & gold’s press, it could be a long night at the Banc.