KBSR, Timbers vs. NY, 9.18.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | Securing playoff places the focus for Portland, Red Bulls

Five games. 15 days. That stretch started on Sunday against D.C. United and ended with a 1-0 loss after its first match. Entering a cycle that will generally go re-entry day, light day-before workout, then match (with an occasional day off mixed in), Sunday marked a disappointing start.

The only silver lining to the Timbers’ congested stretch is geography. Still over a week from their next (and final, in the regular season) venture on the road, Portland will enjoy the advantage of being in one place for their short-rest games. Often, their opponents, facing with similar scheduling challenges, will be losing time to travel.

The New York Red Bulls don’t exactly fit that description, having already been in the Pacific Northwest for a Sunday game in Seattle. Still, with a new opponent in town, Portland has another chance to right their run-in’s course. 

Here’s what Wednesday’s (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)) visitors have to offer.

Moment of doubt: RBNY’s form

Three straight losses and only four points in their last six games have taken the Red Bulls from favorites to get a home game in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs to worries about whether there’ll be a postseason, at all. That speculation can only go so far, though. Up four points on eighth-place Montreal (with a game in hand) in the conference standings, New York seems a safe bet to make the playoffs for a 10th straight season.

Yes, MLS diehards. You read that correctly. The franchise that spawned the phrase “that’s so Metro” to ironically explain the ways they’d fail has, over the last decade, became one of the most consistent performers in MLS. While much of the allure of that phrase was linked to the team’s playoff failures, it’s worth noting that the history of MetroStars and Red Bulls soccer has seen the team miss the playoffs only four times in 23 seasons.

In all likelihood, that will be four times in 24 seasons. The Red Bulls are too good to be on the outside come game 35 of the season. But going into their second game in four days in Cascadia, New York is also four points out of a home game in round one. While they may not be in true danger of missing the postseason, they’ll need to turn the corner soon if Red Bull Arena’s to host playoff soccer in Round 1.

Thin, and short: Portland’s history with RBNY

Sal Zizzo is the Timbers’ all-time leader in assists against the Red Bulls. That tells you a lot about how infrequently these teams play. Situated across conferences, with one team having joined MLS relatively recently, there hasn’t been much time for the Timbers to forge history with New York’s original club. As such, a player like Zizzo, who played only 60 games in Portland and hasn’t appeared for the team since 2013, can be the team’s all-time leader in helpers versus New York.

By the way: he had two. Just two.

The more relevant history between the teams stretches back only 17 months, when the Timbers last visited Red Bull Arena. Coming off a season-opening loss at the LA Galaxy, Portland arrived in New Jersey in search of the first victory of the Giovanni Savarese era. Instead, after decent first half that had the Timbers chasing a goal entering the final 45, Portland fell, 4-0, and returned home needing an early-season reset.

Nobody will be thinking of revenge on Wednesday night. In light of how the Timbers’ 2018 finished, last March’s loss feels as if it’s from another era. But it says something about the teams’ thin history that 2018’s is one of the stand-out results. Across conferences, it’s hard for history to grow between two clubs.

Who to watch from New York: A Pilot back home

Luis Robles spent Monday up on The Bluff – a homecoming, of sorts. From 2002-2006, the Red Bulls goalkeeper called the University of Portland home, becoming the program’s all-time saves leader in his senior year, capping three-straight seasons as an All-West Coast Conference selection in goal. With the Red Bulls spending the day practicing at his alma mater, Robles was able to catch up with the staff and students who still have an interest in his career’s course. Over a decade removed from his time in the Rose City, Robles still has ties to Portland.

Over the last few seasons, the Red Bulls have said goodbye to players like Tyler Adams, Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty. Departures have become a reality around the Red Bulls, yet for the last seven seasons, Robles has been a constant. He’s the most reliable thing about the current era of New York Red Bulls soccer.

Normally here, when we pick out one thing to watch, we’ll say Zlatan! Or Carlos Vela! Or another player who makes you think exclamation point! At some point, though, Luis Robles might have earned that honor, especially returning to a city that was so instrumental to development. Over a career that’s taken him from Arizona to Portland and New York, college to pro and, eventually, to the U.S. national team, Robles (!) has become a player to be excited about.

Matchup to watch: Scorpion versus the Long shot

New York central defender Aaron Long has enjoyed a long come-up, one that’s taken him from second-round draft pick of the Timbers and released from both Portland and Seattle Sounders FC in 2014 to, four years later, an MLS Defender of the Year and U.S. national team member. It’s an amazing, inspirational story that often ignores the obvious: You don’t go from second-round pick out of U.C. Riverside to wearing a national team’s armband without a tremendous amount of hard work and progression. Long is where he is now not only because he proved a lot of people wrong. He worked hard to do so.

This week’s matchup could prove a challenging one, though. Timbers forward Brian Fernandez has been out of the starting lineup for games against Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United, eventually appearing late against Sporting while not dressing at all against United. On Wednesday, though, he could be back in the team – an appearance that could play against Long’s strength.

Stalwart, intelligent, and willing, Long is the kind of defender that can serve as a linchpin for your back line, as evidenced by the consistently above-average defenses New York’s had since he became a regular starter in 2017. Fernandez, though, demands more than above-average. With speed and movement that matches any striker in MLS, the mid-season import from Necaxa is going to probe areas were Long may be most vulnerable. 

While that isn’t a guarantee of success – and players like Tim Parker and Armo Tarek, his potential partners in the middle, are also not considered fleet of foot – this has to be an area of concern for New York. A problem, if you will. While other teams have solved their Fernandez quandaries this season, it’s Red Bulls’ turn to see if they can replicate those teams’ approach.

And … as for the Timbers 

The selection issues that have plagued the team over their last two games are starting to dissipate. Fernandez could be back. Sebastián Blanco is listed as doubtful, as is Larrys Mabiala. Zarek Valentin will be back, soon, after his family’s arrival of their first child, while the circumstances that have limited options at midfield, fullback and central defense are starting disappear (even if Julio Cascante, Modou Jadama and Jeff Attinella are still out). It’s not going to be there on Wednesday, yet slowly but surely, the Timbers are getting back to the best version of themselves.

Perhaps the bigger questions focus less on the team’s selection than its shape. For much of the team’s season, they’ve started in a 4-2-3-1 formation, though as of two weeks ago, the team shifted to a 4-3-3. A win against Sporting Kansas City may have encouraged the team to roll one week’s lineup into the next, but after the loss to D.C. United, what should Portland do? Build on what is, or go back to what was?

Regardless of the path, the games are starting to feel must-win. Coming into the night, Portland will have 43 points, equal to the eighth-best (aka, out of the playoffs) team in the West. If the Timbers don’t use games like Wednesday’s to reclaim their gap on the field, they’ll soon find themselves fighting for their postseason survival.

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