The Story So Far
It’s been a choppy past few weeks for the Portland Timbers. With just four games remaining and still below the playoff line (although just barely) the gravity of the situation at hand is beginning to sink in. The Timbers won’t be able to ride a home-heavy schedule comfortably into the playoffs — and from here on out they will need to fight for every point if they don’t want to finish on the outside looking in.
The Timbers are now into the ninth game of a ten-game homestand that has had many ups and downs. Portland has lost four of its past six home games, with the most recent being a 2-0 midweek defeat to the New York Red Bulls, a game where the Timbers had their chances, but just couldn’t finish in front of goal.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is coming off of a dominant 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake, which has propelled them to third in the Western Conference.
The last time the Timbers and Loons faced off came during a rough stretch for the Timbers: They lost 1-0 at Allianz Field from a controversial handball call at the death, followed by a 2-1 loss in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup just three days later.
Throughout Minnesota’s almost three-year existence in MLS, the Timbers have never beaten the Loons down south, while the Loons have yet to win at Providence Park. The Timbers will need that trend to continue tonight on Sunday afternoon — because dropping all three points in this one could spell disaster.
What to Watch For
Minnesota United (14-6-10, 48 pts)
While the Timbers are still fighting to get into the playoffs, it’s Minnesota United who is sitting pretty on the verge of their first MLS postseason appearance. It’s been a while since opening night 2017, when the Timbers had one of its most complete opening games in a 5-1 victory over the Loons. Since then, Minnesota United has come a long way, and nothing exemplifies that growth better than taking a glance at the team’s designated players.
Darwin Quintero, Minnesota’s first-ever DP, is a menace in transition and — if on his game — can absolutely devastate the Timbers if caught too far up the field. The Colombian is coming off of a brace against Real Salt Lake last weekend and will be back in the building where he scored his first MLS goal. Jan Gregus makes the offense tick in the midfield. While he doesn’t post crazy numbers (1 goal and 9 assists through 26 games), his ability to play those long, diagonal balls on a string — along with his work-rate as a box-to-box midfielder — makes him the perfect complement to Ozzie Alonso, who is making his first visit to Providence Park since being traded from the Sounders.
Once again the Timbers will face a team that likes to sit in and counter, seemingly the team’s kryptonite. Unlike a D.C. or New York, Minnesota actually excels with this game plan, and it can be argued that they are just as potent, if not more so, than the Timbers when in transition. As soon as they win the ball, there’s a long ball being sent over the top for someone to run onto and, before you know it, there’s a dangerous shot on goal. No example of that strategy is more evident than the goal from Mason Toye that ultimately eliminated the Timbers from the U.S. Open Cup earlier this season.
Much like the Timbers’ main weakness, Minnesota can often overstretch themselves in transition if they are not careful. While they will get many dangerous opportunities, it opens the game up for the Timbers to get excellent opportunities the other way. Luckily for the Loons, when they give up all that space in behind they will have Vito Mannone in goal, who has 104 saves and ten shutouts this season. If the Timbers get a one-on-one opportunity, provided it is actually on-target, it still will not be easy to get on the board.
Both of these teams could not be more similar in how they plan to line up and attack this game. With plenty still on the line for both sides in a compact Western Conference, the Timbers have to make sure that they do not concede that pivotal first goal for the sixth time in seven games. A result on Sunday afternoon can do a lot for the club’s confidence, but if they drop all three points again, the entire season could all come down to decision day.
Portland Timbers (13-4-13, 43 pts)
The Timbers now find themselves in a precarious situation following last Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls. Sitting on 43 points, the Timbers are now back below both FC Dallas and the playoff line — but a win could see them leapfrog to fourth.
Coming into this stretch of five games in fifteen days, the game against Minnesota had to have been circled. Outside of the season finale against San Jose, Sunday afternoon’s game will have the most significant impact in the Western Conference table. That being said, I fully expect Gio to play the most potent lineup available. Despite the recent injuries, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see a lineup consisting of Valeri, Blanco, Fernandez, Ebobisse, and Chara set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. While the Timbers should have their most robust lineup in weeks, they still have to make sure they play to their capabilities, because the lineup doesn’t matter much if the team cannot convert their chances.
Portland has not scored a single goal since scoring twice in the final ten minutes of a game against Sporting Kansas City on September 7th. The Timbers rarely get shut out more than once in a season, yet they have gone more than 180 consecutive minutes at Providence Park without a single goal.
Despite dealing with critical injuries along the defensive line, the connection in attack seems to be a much more pressing issue. Savarese has been deploying players such as Valeri, Fernandez, Loria, and Ebobisse throughout the cold stretch, but Portland has scored just four goals over its past six games. And that isn’t for lack of opportunity. The Timbers had multiple good chances on Wednesday against the Red Bulls but just couldn’t take advantage in those moments.
At this point of the season, the Timbers should be focusing less on gaining home-field advantage for the playoffs and more on just making the post-season in the first place. As the season winds down, it’s easy to see that the back end of the Timbers home schedule has not been the cakewalk that people predicted it to be. And with the danger of losing three home games on the bounce looming large, a win could be all it takes to severely boost the team’s confidence heading into the final three games of the season.
With a loss on Sunday, the Timbers will set a team record for its most defeats at Providence Park in a single season.
The Timbers have been shut out three times in its past six games. Before that, Portland has been shut out just ten times in its past sixty games.
Diego Valeri is just two goals shy of finishing a third consecutive season with double-digit goals and assists. (Currently on 8 goals and 16 assists)
The Timbers final road game is in Kansas City. Portland has lost every regular season game at Children’s Mercy Park since 2015 and hasn’t won there since before 2014.