PORTLAND, Ore. – There have already been so many oddities in the Portland Timbers’ 2019 season, what happened in March at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, is easily forgotten. The snow game in Colorado. The non-handball in Dallas. Whatever that was at the end of the Los Angeles FC visit. Add in what happened in Cincinnati and San Jose and it’s no wonder nobody thinks about March 31.
But that game was a strange one, too. It featured the Timbers’ most gorgeous goal of the season – a back-to-front sequence that ended with Jeremy Ebobisse in front of an open goal. Perhaps even more memorably, the game featured two contentious penalty calls: the first highlighting and underappreciated part of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s skillset; the second made more frustrating for coming after the first.
“I remember a team that is improved from last year, a team that has some interesting pieces, and a team that is going to be difficult, regardless of who they’re going to have,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said about that March meeting. In the question, the issue of the penalty kicks had already been acknowledged.
“I know they have some guys missing,” Savarese said, referring to the Gold Cup absences of Jonathan dos Santos and Uriel Antuna, as well as the injuries to Romain Alessandrini and Sebastian Lletget, “but whoever is going to step on the field, they’re going to be a tough team to play against.
“We’re going to compete. They’re going to come here with the same idea. Hopefully, it’s going to be a good match.”
Whether that happens may depend on how the coaches approach the game. For the Timbers, Wednesday’s match (8pm, TICKETS, ESPN+) starts a four-game, 11-day stretch, with cross-continent travel wrapped around next week’s visit to Montreal. The Galaxy don’t have a game in the middle of next week, but in the three games on their schedule between now and June 29, they’ll travel to Portland, Cincinnati and San Jose. Two of those trips are shorter, easier lengths, but they’re still trips.
Savarese would be justified rotating his team with eyes on Saturday’s visit from the Houston Dynamo (8pm PT, TICKETS, ROOT SPORTS). But that doesn’t mean he’ll do that. Likewise, Guillermo Barros Schelotto could prioritize Saturday’s match in Cincinnati and send a second-choice squad. Again, that doesn’t mean he’ll do that. As last week’s Timbers selection in Tacoma, Washington, against the Sounders showed, each game gives a coach their chance to take U.S. Open Cup as seriously as they want.
Here’s this week’s slightly altered KeyBank Scouting Report, focusing on who’s in, who’s out for Wednesday’s matchup.
National team duty in North and South America will cost the Timbers two options, with Andrés Flores (El Salvador) and Andy Polo (Peru) at Copas Oro and America, respectively. Whether defender Bill Tuiloma will be healthy enough to rejoin his teammates remains to be seen. When asked about whether Tuiloma’s hamstring will be sufficiently recovered to make him an option for this week, Savarese said, “We’ll see,” after conceding the center back is, “getting very close.”
In that sense, the Galaxy’s absences feel like a greater hindrance. Nobody would put a player like dos Santos on Ibrahimovic’s level, but in how the Galaxy have played without the Mexican international, there are times he feels as important. Antuna, on loan from Manchester City, has made 16 starts this year, while the versatility of Lleget is one of those undervalued assets which, in how often it’s mentioned, isn’t so undervalued anymore. Oh, and Alessandrini? Maybe the best wide player in the league, when he’s healthy, and on the same right flank, fullback Rolf Feltscher is away with Venezuela.
So … yeah. Even if the Galaxy go “full strength” in Portland, they’ll be missing a lot.
LA still has a number of talents whose names, to MLS fanatics, will be recognizable. Midfielders Perry Kitchen and Joe Corona were both U.S. national team regulars not so long ago. Chris Pontius had successful stints at D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union before arriving in Carson before last season. David Bingham has been a regular starting goalkeeper for over four years, going back to his time in San Jose, while it wasn’t so long ago (15 months, to be more precise) that winger Emmanuel Boateng was snapping ankles of Timbers defenders in a season opener.
Three of the team’s lesser known names may be more interesting. MLS diehards undoubtedly know about 16-year-old Efrain Álvarez, probably the best prospect in the league, but Timbers 2 fans will also remember the then-15-year-old lighting up their team at Providence Park last season. Before he could drive, Álvarez was too good for USL.
Only slightly older, 17-year-old right back Julian Araujo may also get time, as he did in last week’s Open Cup victory over Orange Country FC. And in attack, May acquisition Favio Alvarez, a 26-year-old from Argentina’s Atletico Tucumán, could get more minutes to continue integrating himself into his new squad.
As for the Timbers, Sebastián Blanco’s suspension from Saturday’s game against Houston (yellow-card accumulation) makes him more likely to play against the Galaxy. Beyond that, there’s little certainty, except for the absences of Flores and Polo. If Savarese wants, he can approach Wednesday’s game the same way he did last week’s in Tacoma, playing a full team then assessing how his squad stands ahead of Houston.
What it all means
The simplification here is selection will play a huge part: how Savarese approaches this game; what Schelotto does. The stronger team will have the advantage, but with weekend commitments looming for both teams, who will start the stronger squad?
Portland seems the more likely to. More depth. Fewer absences. Less travel, this week. The same issues the Timbers face before next Wednesday’s game in Montreal – losing two days to travel around a game – the Galaxy are dealing with now. Combine that with their absences, as well as Wednesday’s game being Open Cup, and Timbers fans should have more reason than usual to be optimistic before kickoff.