The Portland Timbers are traveling north to America’s hat (Canada) for the first time in 2022 to face off against Cascadia foes the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Timbers are coming off a bruising home defeat and have been winless in their past three outings. They also hope to win the first Cascadia Cup clash of the season to try to get the season back on track.
Here are five numbers that help preview the coming game against Vancouver:
4: The number of Timbers center backs available for selection on Sunday
In his pregame media availability, Giovanni Savarese confirmed that Zac McGraw will be available after missing last weekend’s game due to (non-COVID) illness. That means that Sunday will presumably mark the first time all season that Portland has all four of their center backs healthy and available for selection.
All offer pros and cons: Dario Zuparic has started the last two games. Bill Tuiloma is in form and is now known as the bringer of thunderbolt free kicks, I guess. Zac McGraw is perhaps the brightest spot of Portland’s spring thus far with the highest upside. Larrys Mabiala has yet to see the field, but has the history of being Portland’s steadiest central defender for most of the past two years.
Savarese stated a few weeks ago that he has four starting-caliber center backs on his team, and the first month of the season has shown that he indeed might. Now, he finally has the chance to start to feel out who will be the strongest moving forward, and Saturday is our first chance to see where his thinking lies.
-1.2: Portland’s goals scored minus expected goals
What that number suggests is that Portland has been a slightly better offensive team than what their results are showing. Savarese alluded to this point in his pregame media availability, identifying that the team has produced good scoring opportunities, but is lacking that final sense of urgency to put the ball in the net.
The numbers back up Savarese’s claim, which shows that statistically Portland hasn’t been scoring as many goals as they should. The reasons could be attributed to a variety of things: lack of sharpness, too much hesitation, the right players not finding the chances (more on that in a bit), or perhaps an emphasis on “being too pretty” as Savarese called it last week.
Will those numbers correct themselves, and will Portland start scoring more goals? It all depends on Portland’s urgency and ruthlessness in front of goal. This team can produce moments of pretty offensive soccer, as we’ve all seen. The next step to elevating this season is to turn those into goals — whether they’re pretty or not.
4: The number of players on the Timbers roster who have more expected goals this year than Jaroslaw Niezgoda
Expected goals are, of course, not the perfect metric for measuring offensive output or quality in front of the goal, but they are a good canary in the coal mine to look into who has been finding good opportunities to score. And right now, according to that number, Cristhian Paredes (2.0), Yimmi Chara (1.5), Dairon Asprilla (1.4), and Bill Tuiloma (1.0) have all found better scoring opportunities than Jaroslaw Niezgoda (0.9).
Portland’s DP striker has simply not been finding quality scoring opportunities this year. There is a separate discussion to be had about why and arguments to be shared; but, for now, the reality is that the man being relied upon to score goals has not been finding good positions to do so thus far in 2022.
All of Portland’s attacking woes cannot be pinned squarely on Niezgoda, but Jaro does have the ability to alleviate a significant amount of those woes — and, therefore, significantly lift the team — by doing what the team needs him to do the most on Saturday: putting the ball in the net.
-3.6: Vancouver’s expected goals difference
This number is the third-worst in the entire league, and it may seem to suggest that Vancouver is an extraordinarily bad defensive team. But in reality, they’re not: They’re just a kind of bad defensive team.
Much of that expected goal differential comes from their 4-0 season opening loss to the Columbus Crew. Since then, Vancouver has been better defensively, but not great. In each of their subsequent losses, Vancouver has shipped multiple goals (two in a loss to Houston, three in a loss to LAFC).
So the Whitecaps aren’t a “we regularly get stomped” Cincinnati-type team, but more of a “we will probably allow a goal, and likely two” type of time (fairly similar to how, um, the Timbers have been in 2022 if we’re being honest).
What does that mean for Saturday? It means that there is a high likelihood that the Timbers will have quality chances to score. Vancouver’s defense probably isn’t good enough to stifle all of Portland’s offense, but if the Timbers don’t make the most of their chances, they may be kept off the scoreboard.
3: The number of goals Vancouver has scored through five games played
If you want to identify the main problem with Vancouver through 2022, it’s been their goal scoring. The Whitecaps have only scored three goals this season and have been shut out twice. They have three players with one goal apiece — and two of them are defenders.
Making this problem worse is that last year’s leading goal scorer, Brian White, only just started seeing the field after recovering from a calf injury, and he has yet to get into form. A big reason that the ’Caps made their late season surge in 2021 was due to White’s form, and we are now seeing how ineffective their attack is without him firing.
Another player not firing is midfielder Ryan Gauld. His arrival was another big reason Vancouver pushed into the playoffs, and so far this season he hasn’t hit those same heights. He is averaging just 0.09 expected assists per ninety minutes, well below his average of 0.28 from last season.
All is that to say that right now Vancouver is a beatable team. Saturday isn’t a game where Portland should be ready to settle for a point: It’s a situation where their opponents have not been able to find the net and are fallible in the back. Portland’s goal tomorrow should be three points — a result that will go a long way from correcting a wayward start to spring.