BEAVERTON, Ore. — Familiarity will not be a problem when the Portland Timbers host Los Angeles FC on Sunday at Providence Park. The latter has only been a Major League Soccer team for three-and-a-half years, yet across three competitions, the teams have already faced each other 11 times. The Timbers are 3-4-4 all-time against a team that has come to feel like a new rival.
Beyond the team’s history is their present, and the formation that LAFC is likely to be playing this weekend. LAFC switched shapes in the middle of this season, moving away from the four-defender, three-attacker look they’d used since their debut season in 2018. Starting in June, the team began using a three-defender set, and while the summer has seen LAFC move back and forth between their looks, head coach Bob Bradley’s team enters this weekend’s match with three-straight wins playing three at the back.
“The good thing is that we're playing a team that plays in a system we have faced in the past games,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said during his Friday media availability. “It's the common dominator in what we have faced in front of us.”
The Timbers are unbeaten over their last four games, playing teams that all used different aspects of a three-defender setup. The Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps and Colorado Rapids all play natively from that shape, while the Houston Dynamo, like many other teams, leave three players back when building play with the ball.
“The teams at that we have faced basically played the same system, the 3-4-3,” Savarese said. “And they have some different situations in the way they manage pressure, the way they build up, and other things like that.
“[LAFC is] pretty much very similar to what we have faced. We are taking that into consideration, and we are making our final considerations.”
Those final considerations began in earnest today at the team’s training center in Beaverton, Oregon, where the Timbers returned to the field after a day recovering from Wednesday’s match. That match, a 2-2 draw against Colorado, may have been especially taxing for the team, and not only because it came on short rest after winning the previous Friday at Vancouver. Over Wednesday’s final 48 minutes, the Timbers played a man down, yet they overcame two deficits after Bill Tuiloma incurred a second yellow card.
“Going down a man, basically for 45 minutes, required a lot of work and a lot of determination from the players …” Savarese said. “I asked them in the locker room to come in the second half and be very disciplined, but with the ball, be brave and move forward, find good spaces we can. And they did a great job to stay disciplined and to use the moments when we had the ball to be smart in the decisions that we made.”
The result of those decisions shouldn’t be overlooked. The Timbers were facing a team with the second-best points-per-game rate in the Western Conference. The Rapids spent the first 40 minutes showing why. Colorado’s ability to generate consistent man-up situations against the right side of Portland’s defense threatened to sway the match early, while their work on the other side of the field created advantages for crosses at the Timbers’ far post. As evidenced by the scoreline when Tuiloma was sent off, Portland dealt with those situations well, but Colorado’s ability to stress the Timbers’ defense showed why they’ve been so successful since their head coach, Robin Fraser, joined the team a year ago.
That the Timbers managed those threats while generating their own was a sign of quality. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly what Portland wants to be at home, but the score was still 0-0 at halftime. That, over the second half, the 10-man team came back twice made Wednesday’s one of the more telling results of the season.
Come Sunday’s kickoff, the Timbers will be back to 11 men, which means expectations will be higher. Unless some other new, unforeseen event happens, moral victories won’t be enough. The standard for LAFC’s visit will bounce back to what it is every time Portland plays at Providence Park — winning — but given how familiar they are with Sunday’s opponent, the Timbers will know exactly what they’ll need to do.
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