Know Your Enemy: Portland Timbers – Meeting the Only

With a few unexpected extra days of rest under their belts and a short-handed roster due to international duty Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Wednesday night against Western foes, the Portland Timbers.

Toronto, though limited in options and having lost their last two matches, must approach the match with an air of hope - they have never lost to Portland - and even if the playoffs remain a far-off, perhaps, unreachable goal, there is still much to play for this season. Be it for pride, or to engage the fanbase; to restore confidence, or build towards the remaining CONCACAF Champions League matches; winning is good.

A bottom of the league clash, each club finds themselves adrift at the base of their respective conferences.

Portland has had a trying second season in MLS, but TFC knows well that one writes off opponents at a cost - a closer look at the Timbers is in order.

The Form

Portland's season can be broken into three distinct set-backs.

The first, a four-match losing streak stretching from the end of March to beginning of April that saw them slip away from the pack in the West; the second, that jaw-dropping 0-1 loss to Cal FC in the US Open Cup at the end of May; and the third a five-match losing streak that began with Coach John Spencer being removed after a 3-0 loss in Salt Lake - Gavin Wilkinson was named his interim replacement until a permanent appointment can be made - and ended with a 1-1 draw against Dallas on August 5th.

The dismissal of Spencer was peculiar and surely more will emerge from the cryptic answers given by Owner Merritt Paulson - just what are "profound philosophical differences" and how did they emerge so rapidly to lead to such a head after what must be termed a successful expansion campaign?

Wilkinson's first match at the helm, a 3-5 loss at home against Los Angeles, though spectacular and fun to watch, was a setback which precipitated a difficult stretch.

A pair of 1-0 losses - away and then at home - to Chivas USA, who swept the three-game season series, bookended an embarrassing 5-0 loss away to a then struggling FC Dallas side.

Portland found a small measure of revenge when Dallas travelled to the Pacific Northwest, with Jack Jewsbury scoring a screamer to draw Portland level after Scott Sealy had given the visitors the lead.

Though they are winless in their last six matches and are the only MLS side yet to pick up maximum points on the road this season, there have been marked improvements over the last two weeks.

The Lineup

Portland will be without two players who have been called up for international duty - Lovel Palmer to Jamaica and Steve Purdy with El Salvador - while Frank Songo'o is suspended for yellow card accumulation, which is rather advantageous for Toronto, as his dynamic play and ability to run at defenders from the left flank has been prominent in the better performances the side has put in as of late.

In another seemingly bizarre move the Timbers executed a goalkeeper swap with Montreal last week, shipping fan-favourite Troy Perkins to the Impact in exchange for Donovan Ricketts, who appears set to make his debut in Toronto.

The Reds should be familiar with Ricketts having already faced him four times this season during his time in Montreal.

The projected lineup is as follows: from right to left - Kosuke Kimura, Hanyer Mosquera, David Horst, and Steven Smith across the back; Jewsbury sitting in as the deep-lying defensive shield, with Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe ahead of him in the midfield; Kalif Alhassan, Kris Boyd, and Eric Alexander across the top.

football formations

The Timbers to do have several options that will be considered for playing time: Futty Danso is a sturdy third centre-back that could take the pitch in lieu of either of the two named; homegrown rookie Brent Richards has featured on the right-side in recent matches; Sal Zizzo who has struggled with recovering from a knee injury is another option on the right, though he hasn't feature prominently as a starter; up top the likes of Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito, as well as Bright Dike who has spent a successful spell on loan to the LA Blues of the USL this season, are striking options, some of whom will likely see time as second half substitutions.

First-round draft pick Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who many thought Toronto would select if given the option, appears to be on loan with those same LA Blues at the moment, though the deal stipulates he can be recalled at any time.

Eric Brunner, a solid centre-back and regular for much of the season, has been absent since suffering a concussion against Vancouver at the end of May, though he recently returned to full training. Rodney Wallace has found minutes on the pitch rare, though with Wilkinson offering extended tryouts to fringe players, he could see some time on the left-side.

The Tactics

Much of that improvement has revolved around a tactical switch from Spencer's 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 after a period of experimentation under Wilkinson and recently appointed Assistant Manager Sean McAuley - a former teammate of Wilkinson's with the Timbers back in 2002, brought over from Sheffield Wednesday.

Spencer was staunch supporter of the 4-4-2, but since his removal the Timbers have dabbled with a 4-2-3-1 before settling on a more fluid 4-3-3.

The major shift that has brought about some stability and provided some attacking impetus in the last two matches has been the role of Chara in the midfield.

Relied upon as a sitter or destroyer in the middle for much of the season, the last two matches have seen him given license to press forward in support of Nagbe and the attack from a slightly more advanced position, leaving Jewsbury to shield the back four.

With the middle of the park at risk of playing too narrow, the wide attackers have a responsibility to shuttle in both directions, providing support to Boyd in attack and - hopefully, well for Portland at least - pinning back the opposition's full-backs, while also tracking defensively to clog the midfield, reverting to the 4-2-3-1 when out of possession.

Both Timber's full-backs are capable of getting up the field - another necessity given how narrow the midfield can be - and providing crosses, interplay, and overlapping runs on the flanks.

Exploitation

Toronto will have to watch for Boyd's movement.

He's struggled of late - since scoring a brace against LA - including a dire performance in Dallas where he wilted in the oppressive heat, but is due for a goal. He likes to drift off the shoulder of the defender and either makes slashing run to the near-post for a flicked finish or ducks to the back-post for a header, a facet, previously absent from his repertoire that he has added to his game since joining the Timbers.

Mwanga too, should he see the pitch, is a clever forward, and the additional pace - Boyd is not the fleetest of foot which causes him to rush chances on occasion - can be troublesome on the counter.

The Timbers do allow lots of room for switching the play from flank to flank, made more prevalent if Portland's wide attackers are slow to track back.

Left-back in particular has been a problem position, Smith has not looked the caliber expected of him, though coming over midseason is always a difficult transition.

The back-line has had trouble finding its proper position, either dropping too deep under pressure leaving tons of space across the top of the box for ball movement or shooting chances.

Watch how the centre-backs fall right to the edge of the six yard box, virtually on top of the keeper and Smith - and others - appears to leave Eddie Johnson to shoot, with nobody willing to take the responsibility of pressuring the man until it is too late.

Or by squeezing up too high on the pitch, leaving space to be exploited behind them by speedy forwards and a clever pass or two.

That lack of defensive organization and commitment can be a particularly dangerous tact when pressure on the ball-carrier is absent.

Dallas' David Ferreira absolutely picked them apart in the 5-0 thrashing with his ability to find the man in space and exploit the gaps in the defense.

Toronto must not be fooled by the Timbers lowly position - not that a team in Toronto's shoes ever has that luxury. This is a team that will battle and despite what appears to be a lost season, will be hungry for points.

Points of Interest

Richards has a long throw on him.

Sadly the spectacle has been denied what could have been a very interesting Old Firm clash between ex-Rangers striker Boyd and ex-Celtic defender Darren O'Dea, the latter away on international duty with the Republic of Ireland.

This is the only meeting between the clubs this season. Barring any changes to the league structure and scheduling they are set to again play a single match again next year in Portland.

The two have only met twice previously. Toronto winning 2-0 in last season's home opener at BMO Field on a brace from Javier Martina to break out as a star performer - I kid - including a wonderful counter from a long Stefan Frei boot up-field lashed in on the half-volley.

The return was a 2-2 draw with the Timbers taking a lead in the first sixty minutes - through the other Eddie Johnson and Jewsbury - only for Toronto to draw level on tallies from Peri Marosevic and Danny Koevermans.

Portland Timbers Western Conference 9th Place

Played 22 Wins 5 Draws 5 Losses 12 Points 20

Goals For 20 Against 37 Differential -17

Home 5-3-4 Away 0-2-8

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee

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