The Houston Dynamo are no longer the last place team in the league, but remain the last place in the West and are hoping to string together two wins for the first time all season. Coming off a 1-0 win over playoff hopeful Real Salt Lake, the Dynamo looked sharp as they won many of the important midfield battles which allowed them to control the game and contain RSL. Today they’ll need to do much of the same against another talented midfield group in the Portland Timbers. The Timbers also in a playoff position, but have failed to win a single game away from home. The Dynamo will need to capitalize on Portland’s road woes and dominate possession and the chances on target if they want a win.
In our preview of the match we talked a little bit about Portland’s strengths and options for Wade Barrett, but we wanted to know more about our opponent so we spoke with William Conwell of Stumptown Footy to get some insight to his squad.
Dynamo Theory: The Portland Timbers have not won a game on the road and have not gotten a point on the road since a July 10th game at the New York Red Bulls. What’s been the difference for the Timbers to be such a different team away from home and how can they look to improve?
Stumptown Footy: This is the question that everyone in Portland has been asking all year and nobody has really come up with a very satisfactory answer for. Few teams have been good on the road in 2016, but the Timbers in particular are having a very difficult time away from home, sporting the greatest disparity between their home and away forms of any team in the league.
Just why the Timbers have been so impotent away from Providence Park must come down to a number of different factors, so let's take a look at a few of them.
First, the Timbers have been unusually hamstrung (sometimes literally) by injuries this year and have rarely been able to play the same group multiple games in a row; a trend that will continue against the Dynamo with left back Vytas looking unlikely to play after picking up some bruised ribs in last weekend's win over the Philadelphia Union.
Second, the Timbers have struggled to put together the same sort of strong defensive performances that were at the heart of the team's success last season. In 2015 the Timbers notched 13 regular season shutouts; in 2016 they only have five and it took the side fifteen games before they got their first shutout of the year.
And finally, everything else that the Timbers did in 2015 that allowed the side to make their run to the MLS Cup was based around the two issues mentioned above not occurring. The Timbers were a defensively stout team that shut down teams at home and ground out results on the road, leaning on their ability to prevent other teams from getting on the board to see them through. In that season, the Timbers' first choice back line of Alvas Powell, Nat Borchers, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana only missed a combined nine games during the regular season. This year, the Timbers' first choice back line has been all over the place; Powell has missed eleven, as has Ridgewell, Borchers is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Villafana is off plying his trade in Mexico.
So, what can the Timbers do to improve on all of that? Get healthy and get on the same page.
Getting beaten up by a physical Philadelphia team last weekend will not help with that, especially taking the sort of body-check that took Vytas out of contention for this weekend, but otherwise the Timbers are looking about as healthy and coordinated as they have at any point this season.
Dynamo Theory: Given the Timber’s playoff aspirations, how does this game stack up against the remaining Timbers games? Is it a must-win because we’re a lowly team or do other games take on added importance – particularly the Colorado or Vancouver games?
Stumptown Footy: We in Portland have been staring intently at the remaining schedules of just about everyone in the Western Conference for several weeks now and at this point it seems like just about every match is taking on an air of importance.
With just four games to go, the Timbers could really use a few more points to shore up their position ahead of the side below them on the table.
What’s more, the Timbers (as noted above) are still winless away from home this season and the team seems most likely to get into the playoffs with a berth that will force them into a single-elimination away game. While it might not actually do much to affect the outcome of such a game, it would be a great weight off the minds of the Timbers' fan base if the side could just prove that they can win away from home once before EVERYTHING is riding on it. Ironically, if the Timbers are able to turn it on and win away from home in these final matches of the season, it might just push them above stumbling Real Salt Lake in the standing and into a hosting role for the playoffs.
Sure, the Timbers could stumble once or twice and probably still make the playoffs, but with the comparably easy schedules of some of the teams below the Timbers on the table, why risk it?
Now, to actually answer your question, let's turn to an old American sports cliche: at this point in the season, every game feels like a playoff game.
For the Timbers, it has nothing to do with the Dynamo being a team near the bottom of the ladder; rather, the Timbers just need to beat the Dynamo because they are in the middle of an obscenely tight race for a playoff spot and any failure to win along the way only gives their opposition more opportunities to unseat them.
Dynamo Theory: Tactically, what can the Dynamo expect from the Timbers and who are the players that can see Portland get a result on the road?
Stumptown Footy: The players that seem unlikely to be on hand for tonight's match are left back Vytas and left winger Lucas Melano. Of the pair, Vytas is the one most likely to have seen a starting role against the Dynamo and his ability to get forward on the left flank and combine with the Timbers attack will be missed. Melano, meanwhile, has been unseated recently by the return of Darren Mattocks to the Timbers' starting XI, and he has been reduced to a bench role for the time being.
Starting from the back, the Timbers will push their full backs wide and down the pitch, relying on holding midfielder Jack Jewsbury to support Ridgewell and S. Taylor in the center of the pitch and allowing their center backs to fill in the holes left out wide.
With that in mind, the Timbers will likely bring in MLS veteran Jermaine Taylor to fill in on the left flank, largely reining him in while at the same time allowing Alvas Powell to roam free down the right flank, providing width in the attack as Darlington Nagbe cuts inside from his position out on the wing.
In the center of the park, the Timbers will see both Nagbe and Diego Chara roaming freely on defense and in the attack. Chara's main duty will be as a harasser and ball winner, while Nagbe will fill in gaps and start the attack, shuttling the ball down the field and drawing defenders away from the Timbers' more attack minded players.
Finally, the Timbers will have a trio of players who will lead the team's attack in Mattocks, Diego Valeri, and Fanendo Adi. Mattocks will mostly stick out wide on the left, giving the team some width and generally going at fullbacks with his pace, physicality, and abundant step-overs, while Adi will provide masterful hold up play at the top of the formation and Valeri will lurk just behind him, waiting for a quick break down the pitch or a dropped off ball from the big man.
Valeri and Adi are the pairing that are most likely to step up and take over a game for the Timbers. Since joining the Timbers in 2014, Adi has scored 40 goals in just 87 regular season games and is known for scoring goals in braces. Valeri, meanwhile, has notched 35 goals and 42 assists in his 112 games as a Timber and is at the heart of the team's attack.
For my answers to William’s questions, please visit Stumptown Footy!