Coming off of yet another an “encouraging but also kind of disappointing” performance last weekend, the Portland Timbers will look to turn the page on Sunday when they host Western Conference rival the LA Galaxy at Providence Park at 1:30 p.m. (Pacific).
Just as it was against Austin a few weeks ago, it is a key intra-conference matchup, and while it is still early days, a win against LA would go a long way to boost Portland’s place in the table — as well as their confidence.
As it always is against the Galaxy, three points will not be easy. Here are the three keys to the Timbers overcoming the LA side this weekend:
Recognize that the Galaxy might be better than they appear in the table
After a hot start to last season, the men from Carson cooled significantly, winning only two of their final 15 games of 2021 (one of which was, uh, against the Timbers), and missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
This season LA’s start has been a bit more muted if you’re going off results. After winning their first two games 1-0, LA is coming off of back-to-back losses. Their most recent was a one goal loss to the team Portland just came back to draw — Orlando City.
But if you’re going off offensive statistical output, the Galaxy should be much higher in the table.
The LA Galaxy thus far in 2022 have a total of 7.1 expected goals according to FBref which is good for second-best among Western Conference teams. And they’ve only managed to score four goals. In all but one of their games this season, the Galaxy have underperformed their expected goals number. A consistent theme of the Galaxy’s 2022 thus far has been creating many quality chances in front of the net, but not being able to put them away.
What does that mean for Sunday? Namely that the Timbers will have be ready for an attack that has proven to be lively, and perhaps unlucky. The fewer attacking forays they can concede to LA, the better. The more times the likes of Kevin Cabral, newest Galaxy Designated Player Douglas Costa, and tricky attacker Efrain Alvarez have time and space to cook, the likelier it is that they will create a chance Portland can’t keep out.
It also means that the Timbers will have to be wary of LA’s danger men — chiefly Chicharito Hernandez. He leads the Galaxy with two goals in four games, and as of now looks to be the likeliest candidate to score for the visitors on Sunday.
THAT'S HOW YOU START A GAME ‼️— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) March 12, 2022
Portland’s defense, which will maybe see the return of the Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala partnership, will have to be sharp to track The Little Pea on Sunday afternoon.
Refocus on showing greater dynamism in counterattacks
Giovanni Savarese last week recognized the inconsistency with his team’s usually lethal attacks, namely while on the break. “For us to win matches we just have to bring a little bit of a higher level of urgency,” Savarese shared postgame after his side’s draw with Orlando last week.
He continued, “[T]o make sure that we make better runs and behind, that we get a little bit more of those rebounds, a little more scrappy things that I think are going to give us what we need to win the games.”
He’s not wrong. For a few weeks, Portland’s once signature counterattacks have looked a fraction of their former selves. The decisiveness of passes hasn’t been as quick as they need to be, and Portland isn’t showing that scrappiness and determination on the break that they have in years past.
There have been flashes at times — namely from Santiago Moreno. Santi has the most progressive touches on the team and has second-most shot-creating actions on the team according to FBref. Yimmi Chara has also chipped in 12 passes that lead directly to shots in five games, but the influence of those two players alone does not make a consistent counterattacking threat.
Rediscovering that dynamism on the counter that made Portland’s attacks so dangerous last year would do a great deal to punish a team like the Galaxy — a team that likes to possess the ball. Dangerous counterattacks would help keep the visitors honest on Sunday, and of course, help the hosts score goals.
Reset, and Unleash the Blanco
In case you missed it, Sebastian Blanco is still pretty good at soccer. Just look at how he dang near created a winner in the game twice on Sunday, with his passing, and then with his movement, in this highlight package starting at 1:50.
For as limited as Blanco might have been in the opening games of this season, he has shown that he is still one of the most dangerous creators the Timbers have. He leads the team in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, according to FBref.
It bears out in the eye test too. When Blanco is on the field, the Timbers just look like a more dangerous team. He draws defenders, makes crucial passes, and finds dangerous spots in the attacking third. In the past three games, once Blanco has come onto the field, the Timbers look like a better team.
The last step is for Seba to replicate this impact for longer than a halftime or second-half substitute cameo. Savarese intimated last week that Blanco was getting closer to starting, but wouldn’t the Timbers coach didn’t confirm a concrete time line. But if he is indeed close, the second home game in back-to-back weeks, against a key Western Conference foe (whom, by the way, Blanco likes to score against) sure does feel like as good of a time as any to do it.
Portland has many exciting attackers this season like Santiago Moreno, the newly returned Eryk Williamson, and Yimmi Chara, to name a few. But for now, Blanco still looks to be the best of all of them, and the Timbers will need to look to him if they hope to rise up the table this Spring.