For the first time since 2019, the Timbers will play north of the border. On Saturday, August 13 they face off against Toronto FC (4:30pm PT, ROOT Sports).
With sizzling new talent, a young core and the leadership of veteran head coach Bob Bradley, Toronto presents a formidable challenge. After a slow start to the season, TFC got a jolt of electricity midsummer with the arrival of star Italian internationals Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.
Still, the new energy hasn't translated to a dramatic climb up the standings yet. Since May 28, Toronto has won 3 games, lost 5 games, and earned 11 points, keeping them stuck near near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. In comparison, the Timbers haven’t lost at all since May 28, racking up 18 points in that stretch. Even with their league-leading 12 total ties, that summer record is no small feat.
Here are three things to watch keep an eye on as the Timbers look to win their second-consecutive match in, ahem, “The 6.”
1. Can the Timbers win the midfield battle?
Saturday afternoon’s match begins and ends with who wins –– or at least controls –– the middle of the park.
As he has been for nearly a decade, Michael Bradley pulls the strings in midfield surrounded by Canadian international Jonathan Osorio and versatile athlete Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Portland, of course, has Diego Chara at the base of its midfield and several players who operate wide, comfortable coming into the middle or operating in the half-spaces. If Eryk Williamson makes his return to the starting lineup, he’ll slot in alongside the elder Chara. Then there’s Sebastián Blanco and Santiago Moreno, who both look good anywhere on the field with the ball at their feet.
Toronto likes to play fluid soccer, and nowhere is that flow more evident than in its midfield. Winning Saturday’s game will also come down to stopping Insigne and the rest of Toronto’s attack, but if the Timbers can disrupt the host’s plan to play through midfield and get the ball to the feet of their star attackers, Portland gives itself a chance to travel back to the Rose City with three points in hand.
2. Aljaz Ivacic will be called on again
Regardless of how Saturday’s game plays out, there will be a few key moments in which the Timbers have no choice but to rely on one of their most consistent players this season: goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic.
The Slovenian goalkeeper has made 23 starts this year, making 78 saves and keeping five clean sheets. He made two saves early in the team’s 1-1 draw against FC Dallas that allowed it to stay in the game and ultimately leave with a point.
“[FC Dallas] probably had the two best opportunities in the match,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said after Portland’s game on Saturday. “[Aljaz Ivacic] made two phenomenal—I won’t say saves—he prevented those two opportunities very, very well.”
Balls will fall to the feet of Insigne and Bernardeschi in dangerous areas. If Ivacic can smother out a few of those opportunities, like he did last weekend, it could be enough to see the Timbers ride their offense to a hard-fought result.
3. Timbers look to build on the positives, believing three point performances will come
With so many recent draws it’s easy to feel as if the Timbers are in a slump, but in reality they haven’t taken fewer than a point from a match since before the international break in late May.
Sure, the team would prefer to win every game, but each performance is about more than the result itself. After Portland’s draw against FC Dallas, Savarese made a point to highlight several positives from recent weeks.
“We’re getting players back little-by-little,” Savarese said on Saturday. “[Claudio] Bravo was able to play 45 minutes. Eryk was able to play a couple of minutes. When we get those guys back again, I think things will be even better. We have to stay focused. We have to look at the fact that we didn’t lose. At least one point and one point today put us in a better situation.”
Each game, Savarese learns something new as he tweaks and workshops his lineups. Soon, the hope is those recent draws become wins.