The Portland Timbers have been looking forward to April 14 for so long, the opponent almost feels irrelevant. With construction at Providence Park preventing the team’s annual preseason tournament from happening and the Timbers to spend the season’s first five games on the road, a home game, no matter the opponent, has started to feel like a panacea. Whatever problems the team’s developed during their 0-3-2 start, they can all be cured by one night at home, the thinking goes.
Forty-eight hours from now, that could all prove true. A win over second-year Minnesota United FC Saturday night (7:30pm PT, FOX 12 Oregon), no matter how, will be seen as the breakthrough this year’s squad so desperately needs. And with the Loons coming off a 36-point season, good for ninth in the West, Timbers fans may feel confident. But thanks to the improvement you’d expect after an expansion season, Minnesota already has six points in five matches this year, and against opponents they’ve shared thus far with the Timbers (Chicago, Orlando, and Red Bulls), the Loons have six points while Portland has one.
Having played two more close games with Atlanta and San Jose, Saturday’s opponent gives every indication that they’ll be a tough one. Coming home should help improve Portland’s odds, but it certainly won’t be a panacea.
Here’s this week’s look at the Timbers’ coming matchup, our KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. Time for more than just progress
Three weeks ago, the Timbers put in their most complete performance under Giovanni Savarese, earning a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas. Since, the team has shown progress, playing to the precipice of victory versus Chicago and Orlando, but the performances have proved less complete. Two times in a row, Portland has come from ahead to drop points.
Saturday’s return home also eliminates the team’s last excuse. Now, the progress the team’s shown as its added tactical complexities and, for the most part, improved its execution has to be met by the qualities they showed in Dallas. For 90 minutes, the team must not only execute and evolve but it must also establish a new level of consistency. There are few scenarios where more late mistakes can be viewed as acceptable.
“For me, the most important thing is how our players are now able to solve problems for the majority of the game,” Savarese said on Tuesday, in his weekly press conference. “It’s been very good, and I expect the same thing for this week.”
The sixth game of the season is no time for absolutes, and within our imaginations, we could contrive some outlying, unlikely scenario where the team both makes progress and comes away without three points. If the team can find the consistency it showed in Dallas, though, we can put our imaginations to rest. At home, a complete game should yield a complete result.
2. Forget 5-1
Last year’s home opener gave Portland fans a first impression of Minnesota United. One year later, that impression looks like a false one. If fans are expecting an easy opponent this weekend, they’re likely buying into a caricature created after United’s slow, first-year start, one the team has subtly defied since last spring.
In their first five MLS games, Minnesota allowed 20 goals, going 1-3-1 while lending credence to predictions they would be the worst expansion team of all time. Since, the team’s defense has still been an issue, but it’s “only” conceded 59 times in 34 games. Break out the calculator, and 25.3 percent of the franchise’s total goals allowed were conceded in those first five games, only 12.8 percent of its matches.
As the gap between Minnesota and its opponents shrank, its point total grew. As the team failed to live up to expectations it’d be one of the league’s worst expansion ventures, the Dark Clouds were gifted a trump card to fire out there ensuing doubters. The Loons are still far from contenders, but any lingering conception they’re a mere speed bump is born from outdated notions.
Last year’s 5-1 win was one of the most dominating performances of Portland’s season, but just as it makes little sense to tie this year’s Timbers to last year’s results, it would be a mistake to miscast Minnesota. This year’s Loons are more than capable.
3. One star out, one star in
That capability appeared to take an irrevocable hit when Minnesota’s attacking focal point, Trinidad and Tobago international Kevin Molino, was lost for the season after a major knee injury. After 18 goals and 17 assists over the previous two seasons, Molino was off to a strong start in 2018, scoring twice and adding an assist in 140 minutes. When, while facing his old team in Orlando, Molino went down, Minnesota’s attack seemed sunk.
The raw returns post-Molino haven’t been encouraging, with the team having only scored three times in 270 minutes since his injury. In his absence, though, Miguel Ibarra has played encouragingly well, besting Molino’s passing percentage (86.3 to 76.7) and shots set up per game (1.4 to 0.5). Ibarra hasn’t been the same threat as Molino on goal, but as it concerns keeping the ball and creating shots, he’s filled the vacated boots.
“Molino is an important player. He’s a quality player, for sure,” Savarese said. “But they have other components there; they have other very good players. They’re going to step in and perform. We cannot just think about one player.”
To replace Molino’s threat, Minnesota has added a player with the potential to be among MLS’ most dangerous attackers, somebody who scored 95 goals between his 2009 arrival in Mexico and his recent departure. In Carlos Darwin Quintero, the Loons not only added the club’s first Designated Player, but they added at an attacking threat who can target weaknesses across the width of a defense. Still only 30 years old, the Colombian international should yet be able to rekindle his best Liga MX form.
It’s another reason why any memories of Minnesota’s slow 2017 start gives a false impression. This team has grown since its newborn state, so much so that even a loss like Molino’s may, if all works as planned, be weathered over the course of the season. That may not make the Loons favorites come Saturday’s kickoff, but it gives them a better chance of leaving Providence Park with a result.