The Portland Timbers won’t be shell shocked by the atmosphere at Orlando City Stadium, which, in its second year of existence, is already purported to be one of the loudest in Major League Soccer. When you play 17 games a year in front of the Timbers Army, such obstacles aren’t really a concern.
The bigger challenge may be an Orlando City SC team that’s getting its talent back. Dom Dwyer, out for three games to start the season, is back to torment defenders at the top of the Lions’ attack, as is Sacha Kljestan, the former New York Red Bulls creator who sat the first two games of the season. With Jonathan Spector approaching full health in central defense (after dealing with concussion issues), the ideal version of Jason Kreis’ squad is almost in place. The 4-3 win they posted last week against Kljestan’s former club may have captured some momentum.
“We’re going in there, we know that every game is tough,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said earlier this week. “Every game is a final, and the guys are ready with the right spirit. And for me, that’s the most important part. I see the guys really united in regards to getting into these games, and it’s been fantastic.”
That outlook speaks to Portland’s own momentum, something the Timbers have managed to capture after back-to-back encouraging performances. Although draws at FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire didn’t make a huge dent in the standings, the underlying play showed significant improvement. The tension the team carried back from New York after a four-goal loss to the Red Bulls disappeared from the team long ago.
On Sunday, that momentum is at stake, with Portland hoping to conclude this five-match road spell on a positive note. Here are three things to watch as the Timbers continue to move forward, in your KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. Now’s the time for goals
It’s uncertain whether Spector and fellow center back Amro Tarek will start for Kreis’ team. Spector has cleared the concussion protocol but, after suffering his injury two games ago, wasn’t able to train for over a week. And while Tarek has been working out with the Lions since Tuesday, his own injury forced him from Saturday’s win over New York.
Even when those two were healthy, though, Orlando is still conceding goals: Five times in three games with the duo on the field. In all, Orlando City has conceded eight times this season, having failed to keep a clean sheet while giving up multiple goals on three occasions.
But where there’ve been problems for the Lions, there’s opportunity for the Timbers. Portland has only scored four times in as many games, but since shifting to a 4-3-2-1 formation, the attack has developed an identity, one largely centered on the interplay of Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco. Last week, against Chicago, we saw Portland augment that trio by getting its midfield line forward sooner, but via higher pressing and more abandon in transition.
It’s possible that a newly healthy Orlando will have its defense figured out, but if the same Lions we’ve seen over the season’s first month show up on Sunday, the Timbers need to pounce. Given Orlando’s attacking talents, Portland may need multiple goals
2. Organization will be tested
If Portland survives with only one score, though, that will mean the defense has returned to its Dallas form. Two weeks ago, the Timbers only conceded once while getting their first point of the season, a defensive performance that stands in contrast to the team’s other results. That 90 minutes in Frisco, Texas, was the only time this season an opponent has failed to score multiple goals.
In Kljestan and Justin Meram, another offseason acquisition, Orlando has players who combined for 26 assists last season. And in Dwyer, they have a forward whose industry rivals Dallas’ Maxi Urruti, somebody who continuously issues your defense new challenges.
“You see that they can contribute in a big way to the team,” Savarese said, when asked about the returns of Dwyer and Kljestan. “The win against Red Bulls, which was an interesting match, they finally got the three points at home they’ve been looking for, and they’re going to be a good team. They have quality, in those players being back. It’s going to make it a lot more difficult.”
The Timbers new shape should help, giving the team numbers to contain Kljestan and Meram as Dwyer opens up holes. While that type of compact approach would normally open a team up to threats from wide, generating width is often a problem with Orlando’s diamond midfield. Even if the Lions fullbacks (Scott Sutter and Mohamed El-Munir) can provide that presence, they’ll be leaving more space behind, space which Blanco and Valeri can explore.
3. How to scuff a diamond
That’s where on a tactical level, this matchup could be a dangerous one for Orlando. If they can shift the point of attack to get around Portland’s pyramid, they’ll be able test the execution of players like Marco Farfan, Zarek Valentin, or whomever starts along the formation’s edges. Even if they move Kljestan and Meram into the wide areas, though, the Lions will need their fullbacks or their diamond’s shuttlers (the formation’s widest midfielders) to get wide, high, and augment numbers.
Imagine Orlando do that, but then also imagine the other end of the field. The Lions would have one holding midfielder, either rookie Cameron Lindley or the potentially returning Oriol Rosell, trying to keep track of both Blanco and Valeri. If they can’t, that leaves Portland’s attacking trio facing two center backs, a holder, and whomever else Kreis keeps deep to maintain numbers.
Every player he does hold back, though, means less help for Kljestan and Meram. And should the Timbers be able to split Blanco and Valeri to opposite sides of the diamond, they’ll have a formula for picking Orlando apart. As Columbus showed in week one of the season in their surprise win in Toronto, the diamond can be exploited if you can switch play quickly, get numbers on the new side of play, and attack before the shape can shift to the new flank.
Broadly, that’s how you attack a number of formations, but given how narrow diamond midfield often play, the approach can be more successful. In Blanco and Valeri, the Timbers have creators who can be focal points on both sides of the field. And between the formation’s wide midfielders and the fullbacks Savarese can get forward, Portland has players to offset the numbers.