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Match Preview: Timbers take on LAFC in the first away day of the year

What to expect when Portland travels to LA to face the newly-minted champs.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t much rest for the Portland Timbers to start the season, as after starting their MLS season under bizarre circumstances (once again) they face their first away fixture of the year.

And it’s a bit of a doozy. The Timbers (1-0-0, 3 points) fly down to LA to face defending MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield champions (LAFC 0-0-0, 0 points).

A look at the opposition

The last time we saw LAFC, they were doing this in an MLS Cup:

We all saw how LAFC won their first star in dramatic fashion last November, which went along with their second Supporter’s Shield trophy.

Since then, there have been a few changes for the black and gold. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the man who scored that goal, Gareth Bale, has hung up his boots and is currently enjoying the best golf courses LA can offer (I’m not kidding). Somewhat more surprisingly, LAFC’s leading scorer in 2022, Cristian Arango, has been transferred to Liga MX side Pachuca. LAFC original Latif Blessing is also gone, and is now in New England.

LAFC loaded back up by adding Croatian youth international Stipe Biuk to bolster the attack and German-American Timothy Tillman to reinforce the midfield. Their star acquisition of the offseason though was signing former MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long as a free agent. Getting Long is an example of the rich getting richer, and it makes LAFC that much harder to beat.

Despite the departures and additions, this LAFC team is still the one we’ve all come to expect. They press hard, fight like hell to win the ball back, and can carve up defenses quickly using the ball. There were reasons that they did the double last year, and almost all of those reasons are back this year.

One thing to note is that not only is Saturday LA’s home opener where they will raise a banner, it’s also their first game of 2023. Last week’s marquee rivalry matchup against the LA Galaxy was postponed until July due to inclement weather.

Timbers team news and outlook

Portland is coming off it’s first victory on matchday one of an MLS season since 2017 — and they had to earn it.

After a well-taken goal from Juan Mosquera, the Timbers spent the vast majority of Monday’s match sitting in mid-to-low block, absorbing pressure from Sporting Kansas City. Still, after the final whistle on Monday we can say something we did not say much last season: the Timbers defense held steady and kept the clean sheet.

The question is now if they can maintain it on Saturday. LAFC is, on paper, a more talented team than Sporting Kansas City. They have the recent accolades and fresh additions to the trophy cabinet to back up that claim. And of course, the Timbers will be facing them in the same building where LA fed off of a raucous crowd to fuel them to a last-gasp comeback to claim MLS Cup.

All of that adds up to a tough task for the Timbers on Saturday. It’s still early season and LAFC is nowhere near their peak effectiveness, but they have a dangerous front six that you could put up with the best in MLS. Portland will have to be aware of LA’s deadly forwards, including the always-dangerous Carlos Vela in particular. He can bang in goals with seemingly zero space, as Portland was reminded of the last time they faced him:

In addition to 90 minutes of defensive awareness, Portland will have to create more offense than they did on Monday. Portland generated just three shots in the box in the opener, and just one of those was after Mosquera’s sixth minute goal. Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese recognized as much, as he shared during the pregame press conference that he wants his team to control the ball more and create more chances.

In their efforts to do that, Portland will be even more shorthanded. Yimmi Chara is the latest addition to the injury report, and is out for an extended period of time (Savarese said it could be “weeks”) after injuring his hamstring in the opener on Monday.

Portland will get some reinforcements on the backline, as Aljaz Ivacic and Claudio Bravo are now both fully fit and available for selection on the weekend.

Still, even with more bodies back the situation at hand is that Portland will have to put in a shift to get something out of their clash with the defending champs. Expect Savarese to hit ‘em with the ol’ “sit and counter” approach, absorbing pressure and then attacking directly with pace on the counter. The more they can limit LAFC’s clear chances, the more they can control the ball, and the more they can make out of the chances they create, the better the odds that Portland leaves BMO Stadium with a point or three.

Projected Starting XIs

LAFC (4-3-3): McCarthy; Hollingshead, Murillo, Long, Palacios; Ilie Sanchez, Acosta, Cifuentes; Opoku, Vela, Bouanga

Portland (4-2-3-1): Ivacic; Mosquera, Zuparic, McGraw, Bravo; D. Chara, Williamson; Loria, Evander, Moreno; Nathan

Score Prediction

You could make an argument that Portland is in more of a rhythm than LA, as they have already played a game. And in that match, they spent much of the time in a defensive posture similar to one they will be in on Saturday (defending deep, absorbing pressure, dealing with a press).

But you could make a similar, and probably stronger, argument that LAFC are fresh, focused and more than ready to go. My fear is that the unexpected week off made LA only more eager to play, and that combined with the energy that will be swirling around that stadium as LAFC raises a banner will only give them more energy.

I’m predicting a 2-0 victory for LAFC, with Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga scoring for the hosts. We are still in “early season Timbers” territory where disappointment is almost a given, and Portland’s offense does not yet appear to have the firepower to keep up with a team like LAFC. Maybe Gio pitches an early season smash-and-grab, but my gut says otherwise.