After a whirlwind start to the season which saw the Portland Timbers play two games in one week, winning one and dropping the other, Portland is back at Providence Park on Saturday.
In their third match of the young season, the Timbers welcome St. Louis City SC — the newest team to join MLS. The expansion side is part of the wild Western Conference this year, so Saturday could already hold implications for the year-end standings.
A look at the opposition
St. Louis (2-0-0, 6 points) have had a surprisingly good start to life in MLS. They have collected maximum points through both of their games so far, and along the way defeated a playoff team in Austin FC on the road.
They way they have done that is primarily by knowing who they are. City SC’s playing style can best be described as “New York Red Bulls: Midwest edition”. That is, they bring energy, pace, and pressing to every single part of the field. Despite being an expansion team, St. Louis is well-drilled and has a concrete game plan to any game they go into.
To many watchers of MLS, part of that game plan has appeared to be forcing defenders into inexplicable defensive errors. First it was jumping on the worst back pass in history in Austin (through potentially less than acceptable means). Then it was jumping on the second-worst back pass in history in their home opener.
St. Louis appears to have benefitted from some good luck in their two games, it’s true. But it’s also true that they have tried to make that luck through their own hard work. Timbers defender Zac McGraw identified that City SC throws numbers forward, and always has a few attackers pressuring the backline. Yes, the defenders still make the errors. But having a forward constantly breathing down your neck ups the pressure, and makes it more likely for errors like that to occur.
City SC (is that what we're gonna call 'em?) has scored two goals off of defensive errors, and McGraw gave credit to St. Louis' intense pressing for that. Says that you can always expect 2-3 attackers pressing: "It kinda just flusters the centerback under pressure." #RCTID— Sam Svilar (@sammich923) March 9, 2023
That pressure is part and parcel of St. Louis’ approach to games. They press early and often, and when they win the ball they are not afraid to go right at opponents. They also showed in their opener that they’re unafraid to play with the ball, utilizing quick passing sequences to capitalize on the space they’ve found.
They also are unafraid to run — and run, and run, and run. St. Louis works for 90 straight minutes, and in their first game in Austin we saw that they are undeterred by any environment they find themselves in. They’ve come back from losing positions to win games twice now, so you can’t count them out at any point of a match.
The key players they have relied on to win those games are forward João Klauss, their leading goal scorer, and midfielder Eduard Löwen, their leader in assists. Both players encompass St. Louis’ fearless style, and will be keen to continue their team’s strong start to life in MLS on Saturday.
Timbers team news and outlook
The Timbers come into this one off the back of their first defeat of the season, which came after an ultimately disappointing showing down in Los Angeles against LAFC.
It was disappointing for a few reasons: conceding far too easily off of two set piece opportunities, the late fight they showed not coming early enough to get a result, and the final result itself.
To the first point, the Timbers have expectedly been focusing on their corner defending this week in training. McGraw shared that the team has been working on tightening up their man marking, with a specific emphasis on changing their set up to better defend the near post — an area that has plagued the Timbers on set pieces for years now.
Seeing as St. Louis scored the first goal in their history off of a corner kick, it is for sure a weapon that the visitors will want to utilize. The focus on defending set pieces is needed, and Portland’s ability to get a result may come down to how well they implement those changes.
To the second point identified above, the Timbers will need to be focused and energized from the opening minute. Too often LAFC got in behind and caused Portland’s defense to scramble, and you can be sure that St. Louis will want to follow a similar script. Being prepared for City SC’s press is priority number one for the Timbers, and limiting their own errors in the face of it will be essential in order for them to stay on the front foot in the game.
McGraw identified this when he was asked about how he saw St. Louis’ style of play. “That’s just kind of their gameplan: high press, swarm, close down the middle,” he shared. “We can’t afford to give the ball away in the middle, in the back, in the buildup.”
Staying sharp is one thing — generating offense is another. Portland’s offense has been mostly anemic through two games, with right back Juan Mosquera standing out as the biggest offensive contributor so far. Evander got off the mark and scored his first goal last weekend, and his ability to find space similar to what he did on the goal will be key to Portland starting to score more goals.
As for the formation change that found him that space in LA, a shift to a back three, McGraw didn’t tip his hand if the team is leaning towards starting in that look or head coach Giovanni Savarese’s preferred 4-2-3-1. “We’ve trained both,” he shared when asked about it.
Whatever look the Timbers start in, they will need to be focused and locked in for this one. In order to address the third point of disappointment from last weekend, the result, Portland will have to be prepared to face a hurricane of energy from the midwest. It will be a telling test for how the rest of the Spring may unfold for the Timbers.
Projected Starting XIs
Portland (4-2-3-1): Ivacic; Mosquera, Zuparic, McGraw, Bravo; D. Chara, Williamson; Loria, Evander, Moreno; Nathan
St. Louis (4-4-2): Bürki; Nerwinski, Parker, Hiebert, Nelson; Ostrak, Blom, Löwen, Stroud; Gioacchini, Klauss
Because of Portland’s “eh it might not be good yet” defense and St. Louis’ “eh it might also not be good yet,” defense, I do expect there will be goals on Saturday. And by playing at home, I think the Timbers will have motivation to put last weekend behind them.
St. Louis survived Austin’s Q2 Stadium, but they haven’t seen anything like Providence Park yet. With an army behind the Timbers, I believe that they’ll have the energy and momentum to stay with the new boys over the course of the night.
I’m gonna surprise some folks and go optimistic for this one: a 3-2 Timbers win. Evander gets his second of the year, Santiago Moreno scores his first of the year, and Nathan scores to validate his start (please start him, Gio). Klauss gets St. Louis first in the first half, and then after a roaring Timbers comeback Tim Parker gets City SC’s second in the 85th minute to set up yet another nervy and nausea-inducing frantic finish for the Timbers.