KBSR, Timbers @ Rapids, 5.26.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | Three areas of focus as the Portland Timbers take on the Colorado Rapids

The swing couldn’t be more drastic, from welcoming MLS’ hot, new thing last week to, now, facing an MLS original at the bottom of the Western Conference.

Stylistically, too, the differences between Los Angeles FC and the Colorado Rapids are pronounced, heightening the Portland Timbers’ coming challenge Saturday (6pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)). But as the Green and Gold head east (and up, to altitude), their biggest challenge may be one that’s been eternal to Major League Soccer.

In this league, life on the road is never easy. Western Conference teams, for which travel tends to carry a heavier load, have only won 25 percent of games away from home this season. Last season, that ratio was only 18.7 percent. While life is a little easier out east, where some teams are more geographically clustered (22.7 win percentage last year; 31.0 thus far, this season), the lesson is the same: Playing away from home produces typically worse results.

The Timbers were reminded of that over the season’s first five games, going 0-3-2 on the road to start the season. Since then, though, Portland has claimed a win in San Jose – three points that came square in the middle of their current five-game, 15-point run. But if that winning streak is to reach six, the Timbers have to make it two-in-a-row on the road.

Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus as Portland resumes life on the road.

1. That patient, attacking shape

One of the weird, subtle things that has happened over the course of the Timbers’ winning streak is the team’s offense becoming both better and worse. Of course, that’s a matter of semantics, but in terms of the different aspects of a team’s plays with the ball, it makes sense. Kinda.

Over the course of the Timbers’ last three games, the team is holding more of the ball, completing more passes, getting more entries into their opponents’ final third. Good things, right? Of course they are, but because of how opponents are playing, those good things aren’t necessarily leading to more goals.

Portland Timbers' performance, last six games
Games Possession Passes/Game Final 1/3 Entries/Game Goals/Game
Nos. 5-7 37.8 342 48 2.7
Nos. 8-10 46.6 425 57 1.3

Perhaps, in time, those numbers will lead to more goals. For now, though, teams are overreacting to Portland’s counter, ceding control, and letting the Timbers dictate how the game unfolds. The big hope, here, is that the Timbers can be caught in transition, but thanks to Portland’s patience on the ball, it’s only leading to fewer passes, shots, and goals.

Portland Timbers' opponent performance, last six games
Games Opp. Possession Opp. Passes/Game Opp. Final 1/3 Entries/Game Opp. Goals/Game
Nos. 5-7 62.4 574.7 71.3 1.7
Nos. 8-10 53.4 483.3 57.3 0.3

Colorado’s going to play the same way. They have all season. Their new coach, Anthony Hudson, is committed to a 3-5-2 formation, and while you never know what twists an opposing team might offer, in all likelihood, Portland’s patience is going to have to be a virtue, once more.

2. The gang of four at the back

Much of the Timbers’ ability to maintain that patience, as well as defuse chances when that play goes awry, comes down to the team’s center backs, with Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell having held down the starting spots over four of the winning streak’s five games. That’s going to change this weekend. With a quadriceps injury to Ridgewell, Mabiala could see a change in partner for the third time this season.

On Saturday, it was Costa Rican Julio Cascante who stepped into Ridgewell’s spot, something he could very well do again in Colorado. Whether it is him or Bill Tuiloma, who has already started four games this season, the depth chart’s overall picture remains the same. After Cascante’s 84 convincing minutes against Los Angeles FC, Portland appears to have four strong central defenders. All have distinct styles and strenghs. All are capable of competing for starting minutes.

Portland Timbers central defenders, 2018
Player Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Passes/90 Passing Accuracy
Mabiala, Larrys 10 10 900 1 1 32.7 80.4%
Ridgewell, Liam 6 6 456 0 0 39.7 80.1%
Tuiloma, Bill 4 4 360 1 0 23.5 77.7%
Cascante, Julio 2 0 87 0 0 30.0 82.8%

This is the depth that head coach Giovanni Savarese and general manager Gavin Wilkinson have been talking about all season, and although different people may have different assessments of each player’s contributions, all have now contributed to results. Going forward, Portland’s central defense may truly be a gang of four.

3. The battle up top

Likewise, at the top of Portland’s formation, depth has made starting spots less certain.

After his Goal of the Week, game-winning effort on Saturday against LAFC, Samuel Armenteros looks primed for even more playing time, perhaps at the expense of the team’s established starter, Fanendo Adi. All season, Saverese has said form, training and matchups will determine his choices. Has Armenteros not been in good form?

The thing to remember, here, is that Adi has been in good form, too, albeit not in the way Timbers fans are used to seeing from their No. 9.

Fanendo Adi, MLS scoring record, 2014-present
Year Games Minutes Goals Goals/90
2014 24 1512 9 0.535
2015 33 2161 16 0.666
2016 33 2649 16 0.543
2017 22 1885 10 0.477
2018 9 692 2 0.260

With teams loading up in central defense to contain Portland counter, Adi is often dealing against multiple defenders at once. That’s a great outcome for the Timbers, as every defender opponents commit to Adi means advantages elsewhere on the field. But in order to make teams commit, Portland’s target man has to put in the work.

To this point, he has, and while it hasn’t shown up in his numbers (two goals, two assists in 692 minutes), it has in Sebastián Blanco's and Diego Valeri’s. The space Adi creates in front of and around the defense has helped his Argentine teammates combine for nine goals and four assists this season, with both players’ goal rates eclipsing their MLS career marks.

Blanco and Valeri, MLS goalscoring, 2018 vs. pre-2018
  pre-2018     2018    
Players Games Goals Goals/Game Games Goals Rate
Blanco, Sebastián 33 8 0.242 10 5 0.500
Valeri, Diego 148 58 0.392 10 4 0.400

Perhaps Armenteros can step in produce better numbers than Adi, but they may merely be the goals and assists that Blanco and Valeri are producing now. Or, maybe the Timbers’ newest striker really can take the attack to another level. Regardless, the decision of who to start Saturday isn’t as easy as some numbers might suggest. Beyond goals and assists, Portland has two strikers who, over the course of this winning streak, have being getting the job done.