For the first time since August 2012 the Portland Timbers will play at Toronto FC. These teams play so infrequently that there's not a lot of overlap, though several trades last season, Bright Dike for Maximiliano Urruti; Joe Bendik for Ryan Johnson and Milos Kocic, at the very least brought the two teams to the bargaining table. Both clubs are currently sitting in positions lower than expected and both badly need points to stay afloat in their respective playoff races. To learn all we can about TFC we asked a few questions of Duncan Fletcher of Waking the Red:
1. When Jermain Defoe's on the field for Toronto, scoring has not been a significant problem. What can the Timbers expect with Defoe out for one more week?
The petty answer would be 'a team that actually wants to be out there and will play for 90 minutes without sulking', but that would be a little unfair. Even a fair answer though would have to acknowledge that TFC have often looked better without Defoe, that Gilberto and Luke Moore have a good partnership up front and both of them work better with the team as a whole. Gilberto in particular is a hard worked and very skilled player who can really help keep possession and build moves, whereas Defoe is less inclined to do that, he's very single mindedly looking for chances to run behind the defence and get a shot off. Before the World Cup break, TFC's style was very much tailored to that, very defensive and then looking top break quickly with passes up to Defoe, and Defoe, healthy and seemingly happy got plenty of goals from it. It was generally pretty desperate stuff though, the sort of thing that looked to have no chance of doing well against better teams, Real Salt Lake for example ripped it apart very easily. Then throughout the season Ryan Nelsen seemed to be trying to change to a more patient possession based approach and at the same time, post World Cup, Defoe seemed less motivated, often visibly frustrated with his teammates, and in and out of the team with niggling injuries. In the games he missed, TFC looked better, Gilberto (finally scoring some goals to go with his strong play) came into his own and there was promise of better things. There were growing pains, and defensive injuries contributed to repeated costly breakdowns that cost points and eventually got Ryan Nelsen a seemingly very hasty firing.
What to expect now from TFC under Greg Vanney? Well, it's quite similar to what we saw under Nelsen at the start of the season, he's not a fan of possession for possession's sake, preferring quick attacks, and aggressive pressing. Through 4 games against pretty poor opposition, (Philly x2, Chicago and Chivas) it hasn't looked convincing at all as that pressing has seemed almost suicidal at times and better teams could have killed the exposed defence. The return of the defence to full health, especially captain Steven Caldwell should help with that, but I'm not going to make any judgements based on a win over Chivas. I think when Defoe is fit, if he's motivated and ready then this style could suit him very well. For now though it'll be Gilberto and Moore up front, and they've done well together, though the Chivas game apart, they haven't looked great under Vanney.
2. Both teams are in desperate need of points to keep up with or catch nearby rivals for playoff positions. Will that need make Toronto more likely to go for it or more conservative to try to avoid defeat?
Toronto will be going for the win. With some tough away games coming up, they pretty much need to win all their remaining home games to have a chance of the playoffs, a points no good for them. Now that doesn't necessarily always translate to attacking intent, but when you combine it with what Greg Vanney's been trying to do so far it does. He's all about attacking quickly, eschewing the backpass that might keep possession but really just gives the opposition time to get back into position. Without the ball, he's preaching teamwide high pressing designed to force turnovers. Add in a bit of desperation and TFC will very much look like a team that's going for it.
So far results have ranged from disastrous (little cohesion and toothless up front, exposed and vulnerable at the back) in the first couple of games to not bad (comfortable at the back, quite effective up front). Yes the not bad was against Chivas USA so big asterisk required, but it may just as much be down to players returning from injury and time spent in practice, and thus repeatable, this game should be a much better test of just where TFC stand. Basically, TFC will go for it, and if Portland can show composure under pressure and the ability to hit a good pass to a well timed run, there'll probably be all sorts of counter attack opportunities.
3. Looking back on the Bright Dike - Maximiliano Urruti trade: good idea or bad idea?
Difficult to say really as TFC have barely seen either of them so it's more or less all theoretical. At the time of the trade, Tims Leiweke and Bezbatchenko were saying that they didn't have time to develop Urruti, that they needed a DP player who'd make an impact right away. They then went and signed another relatively untested South American in Gilberto, which kind of exposed that as a lie. Gilberto's played well in that 3rd dp spot behind Defoe and Bradley, so would I swap him for Urruti? No. As for Dike, well he certainly made more sense for how TFC were playing last year, and now there's a bit more offensive depth, I really like the idea of Dike coming off the bench but we still haven't really seen him at all. Theoretical is all I really have, so I'll say that Urruti's probably the better player but given MLS roster restrictions and the other players TFC has, Dike's a better fit.
4-4-2 (R to L) Joe Bendik; Mark Bloom, Steven Caldwell, Nick Hagglund, Justin Morrow; Dominic Oduro, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Dan Lovitz; Luke Moore, Gilberto.
1. On paper Portland look like they should be better than they have been, especially with the midfield. How come having Will Johnson and Diego Chara back there hasn't led to a better defensive record? How come Darlington Nagbe hasn't even scored a league goal this season?
The first question here is answerable, the second is impossible, but here we go. Mostly the answer to the first question is that individual defensive errors on the back line and less than optimal positioning by Donovan Ricketts have been major contributors to the poor defensive record. It also did not help that Danny O'Rourke and Rauwshan McKenzie were the starting center backs for more than a month. Some of the signings have not worked out very well (Norberto Paparatto) and other guys just haven't been as good as they were a year ago (Michael Harrington). Within the system, it makes no sense why the Timbers allow so many goals with ostensibly six defenders but then again the reality is that at any given time, one or both outside backs could be forward and Johnson is likely to be drifting up field, too. With poor one-on-one defending a characteristic of several Portland defenders, the attacking, pressing style farther up field sometimes leaves the defenders out to dry as well. You can pick any one of those stories or combine them in an infinite number of pairs but the reality is that it's all working against Portland's hoping of reducing goals scored.
As for Nagbe, who in the world knows? He did score in the US Open Cup against the Seattle Sounders but otherwise it's been a big blank this year. Part of deal is that he's involved a bit deeper than in the past, so he's passing to the likes of Diego Valeri or Gaston Fernandez who are then creating goals themselves. Nagbe is second on the Timbers with six assists so he's staying involved in the games. It's also worth noting that in very few games does Nagbe look out of sorts. He's had a visually great season despite being almost completely statistically deficient. That said, he still all but refuses to use his left foot and seems more hesitant when approaching goal than he has in years past. But, then again the Timbers are on track to have as many as four players score eight goals so it isn't like they're really in need of more scoring to keep up in the Western Conference. It's been pretty confounding, though, and an endless topic of conversation around town.
2. There's been big in season additions at both ends of the pitch. What have they brought to the team and who's been more influential, Adi or Ridgewell?
It's hard to argue Liam Ridgewell isn't more influential if only because he starts every game. Fanendo Adi alternates starting with Maximiliano Urruti so while he's got a great scoring record, that impact is felt in fewer whole games. To whatever degree it's possible to say the defending has improved over the second half of the season, a lot of that is attributable to Ridgewell and his ability to control the back line with better communication. Yes, he's had a few poor-ish outings (especially against the Seattle Sounders last month) but overall he's made the team better in an area where it was desperately needed. Not to mention scoring two goals along the way. Adi has been fantastic but the truth is that the Timbers were already in a pretty good place offensively. They are most certainly better with Adi as an option but his overall influence is as one of a pair of very good forwards not as the only good central defender.
I'm not sure I totally buy my own argument there but it's plausible enough. Both have been very important additions.
3. Is Maximiliano Urruti living up to expectations in his first full season in Portland. Do you see him as a long term piece of the puzzle there?
To answer the second part of the question first, no. And the reason is that he's one of the few players the Timbers didn't have to pay a ton to acquire who could also fetch a hefty sum from another league around the world. As far as expectations go, I really don't think they were particularly high when he arrived from Toronto FC last fall because no one had ever really seen him play. Despite scoring a spectacular goal against LA Galaxy he quickly got hurt and then the Timbers went on a playoff run without him. So going into this year there wasn't a ton of pressure on him to be a star player, especially when the Timbers added Gaston Fernandez in the offseason. But Urruti has proven that he's an excellent player that is improving with each month that passes. In the short-ish term, he's a very important piece of the line-up puzzle, both as Portland tries to get into the playoffs and continues in the Champions League. I just don't know that he's going to last forever in MLS because at some point there's going to be big interest, provided he continues playing at or near his current level.
Lineup and score prediction:
GK Donovan Ricketts
LB Jorge Villafana
CB Liam Ridgewell
CB Pa Modou Kah
RB Alvas Powell
DM Will Johnson
DM Diego Chara
LW Rodney Wallace
ACM Diego Valeri
RW Darlington Nagbe
F Fanendo Adi
Toronto 2 - Timbers 2