Part One, examining their lineup and form, was posted earlier
There has been a trend over the past half-decade in MLS for clubs to acquire a South American maestro for the attacking midfield position. Many of the league's best players – Javier Morales in Salt Lake, Mauro Diaz in Dallas, Pedro Morales in Vancouver, and Ignacio Piatti in Montreal, to name but a few – fit this description.
Portland too has looked south for an answer to the question of how to unlock opposition defenses, acquiring one of the best in Argentine Diego Valeri.
In his third season with the Timbers, Valeri, who won the Newcomer of the Year award in 2013, has already accumulated 22 goals and 28 assists in just 67 appearances. Even as he comes back from an ACL injury that prematurely ended his season last year, he is a constant threat. Toronto will have to track his movements very carefully in order to not get burned.
Having been held off the score-sheet in his debut against Vancouver, it took Valeri 70 minutes into his first start the following match in Montreal to prove his class, pouncing on a loose ball at the left-edge of the box to bend this beauty around Impact keeper, Evan Bush, giving his side a 0-2 lead:
Such a predatory finish from a player still getting his match-legs under him – and that call from Vic Rauter; spine-tingling stuff.
Aside from stunning individual strikes, what Valeri gives Portland is the ability to play a devastating pass. The vision of Valeri, spotting that quick ball before the opponent can recover their position and senses after a turnover, will slice open the opposition. His through-ball for Fanendo Adi on the weekend in Houston was immaculate.
That incisiveness accentuates another potentially dangerous Portland trait: the ability to strike quickly in transition.
Adi's goal above is one example, pouncing on a turnover in midfield to counter and strike quickly; it is a tactic that Portland has made use of several times. Even players one may not expect, such as defensive-midfielder Diego Chara, can be a threat from such instances.
Following a Dallas set-piece, both Adi and Chara pressure Michael Barrios on the ball, forcing it loose. Adi then lays a pass behind for Chara to chase, running half the length of the pitch for a calm finish to seal the victory:
Further complicating matters is Darlington Nagbe, one of the best dribblers in the league, on par with Dallas' Fabian Castillo, who enjoyed success against TFC earlier this season. Though his talents rarely result in actual goals or assists – he had to wait until the final match of 2014 to break his duck, his threat will keep Toronto on their heels, putting them under pressure and allowing others to reap the spoils.
Toronto lacks pace at the back, so must be wary of pressing too far up the field in search of goals at home, least they give Portland that space in behind. It will also be of crucial importance that when attempting to build play, TFC is careful in possession, as seen, Portland will look to force those turnovers with the high-press.
In New England, Toronto put together a more cohesive defensive style, though they still required a handful of saves from Chris Konopka to earn the result. They will need to redouble those efforts at home, a difficult task given they will also have to look to create more at the other end as well.
Should Toronto manage to see a lead later into the match, Caleb Porter will look to his bench, bringing on the likes of Max Urruti or Gaston Fernandez, both of whom are very good at finding any weak spots in the opponent's defenses.
As if those central threats were not enough, Portland has the ability make good use of both width and crosses. Rodney Wallace in particularly, or Dairon Asprilla and Ishmael Yartey should they feature, have the pace and ability out wide to cause problems. Same goes for the full-backs, who will overlap on either flank and fling crosses into the area to the awaiting Adi, who provides a sizable target in the middle.
His height, along with that provided by centre-backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell will also make set-pieces a concern. Borchers already has two goals this season from just such circumstances, here against Dallas at the back-post:
His goal against Montreal was more of a scrambled, broken play, but if TFC concedes as many corners as they did against New England, they will be in trouble. The solution here is to mark tight and win the first ball, something Toronto has struggled with this season. Trying to limit the number of chances Portland receives from set-pieces would be a good addendum to that effort.
On the opposite side of the ball, Portland are just as susceptible to set-pieces. Their marking has at times been woeful.
Will Bruin's goal from this past weekend provides an excellent example, getting on the end of a Brad Davis free-kick for an unmarked header at the back-post:
Their centre-back duo is formidable in the air, but with smaller players in the attacking and full-back positions, the potential for matching size on size diminishes quickly. Bruin appeared to get away from Jorge Villafana, who may not have been his marker, but was the closest man at the crucial moment, while when Tesho Akindele guided a redirected Michel corner kick over the line, he had escaped the attentions of Wallace, who could not prevent his movement to goal:
Toronto does not have a ton of height in attack, but if Nick Hagglund or Michael Bradley can get free, there may be some joy to be had from such plays.
Part of that problem with marking rears its head in the run of play as well, as the necessary calmness to adequately respond to pressure has been lacking from the Timbers back-line. Consider Giles Barnes goal for Houston on the weekend: a DaMarcus Beasley ball from the left falls to Barnes, sending Portland into a panic, he plays out wide right to Alex Lopez, who, having drawn all the defenders' attention, returns the favour:
Leaving a man that open at the top of the box, never mind that Barnes is the most dangerous man in the Houston side, having only eyes for the ball in such situations, even when there is adequate coverage in the area, was simply not good enough. Four players were caught ball-watching on that play, leaving Barnes wide open for the simple finish.
That same inattention to detail has proved costly to the Timbers in other ways as well.
They have been caught napping at the back on several occasions. Consider Bruin's second of the night, pouncing on a ball missed by Alvas Powell and left by Borchers to dart in behind, getting the necessary touch to loop his finish over Adam Larsen Kwarasey:
It was rather reminiscent of another defensive breakdown that was decisive against Vancouver, as Robert Earnshaw snuck in behind the back-line to score the winner in stoppage-time:
Borchers and Ridgewell each left the responsibility to cut out the pass to the other, allowing the simple through-ball to find its way to Earnshaw, who made no mistakes with his finish.
Those shortcomings, as well as the marking lapses, are symptoms of a back-line that is still familiarizing and does not communicate as much as is required among a defensive unit. Sebastian Giovinco will give individual defenders fits should he be able to isolate them, while in order to really press the point, Toronto should get numbers into the box, give the Timbers more to worry about and be ready to strike when chances present themselves.
One final note, when committing forward, Portland can be very vulnerable in transition, an unexpected turnover and a quick counter can trap the full-backs up-field, providing lots of space to attack and forcing the remaining defenders into rash challenges.
Orlando City won a penalty kick from a similar such passage, on that occasion it was Borchers who was sucked into the midfield before the space behind him was exposed, but the point stands.
Points of Interest
Last Meeting: September 27, 2014 Toronto 3: Portland 2
The match that saw Will Johnson suffer that devastating broken leg would end in a come-from-behind TFC victory. Adi gave the visitors the lead in the 13th minute and a Steven Caldwell own-goal would double that advantage three minutes later. But Toronto would respond in the second half through a pair of Hagglund goals, eight minutes apart, that would set the stage for an 89th minute Bradley winner, when his free-kick sailed through a crowd untouched to nestle in at the far-side.
This is the only meeting between the two sides in the regular season.
They have met five times previously in MLS play, Toronto winning twice, Portland once, and the further two ending in draws, both by 2-2 score-lines.
Three of those matches have been played in Toronto, resulting in a pair of TFC wins and a draw – no road team has won at the other's park.
The Timbers have scored at least two goals in their last four matches against TFC, highlighted by a 4-0 thumping at the end of 2013. Portland pressed hard, scoring three goals in the final ten minutes, through Wallace, Johnson, and Valeri, after Kalif Alhassan opened the scoring earlier in the match.