KBSR, Timbers vs. LA, 6.2.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | Open space, Timbers flank play and Zlatan: What to watch for as the LA Galaxy return to Providence Park

The LA Galaxy’s struggles? We’ve already covered them, just as we covered them before. Still, no stretch of 13 or 34 games can take away from the obvious: They are still the Galaxy, a standing that comes with the honor of wearing MLS’ biggest star above their crest. They’re five-time champions, known the world over, and when they come to take on the Portland Timbers on Saturday (2pm PT, ESPN), they’ll bring that legacy and renown with them.

They’ll also bring a history of producing bangers at Providence Park. Fanendo Adi and Alan Gordon exchanging stoppage-time goals in 2015. Robbie Keane and Diego Valeri doing the same the year before. Andrew Jean-Baptiste breaking a 1-1 deadlock in 2013 with his own at-the-death score. David Beckham bagging a brace from deep in the Galaxy’s 5-3 triumph in 2012. Add in the memorable moments the Timbers have crafted in Carson, Portland’s Galaxy matches may have produced, in terms of one opponent, some of the club’s highest entertainment value.

Into that mix, the Galaxy have added one of the most entertaining players to ever choose Major League Soccer. Though his time in North America’s new, Zlatan Ibrahimović has already produced five goals and three assists in 618 minutes. If he gets to 2000 minutes (which would have ranked seventh on last year’s Galaxy squad), that rate would yield a 16-goal, 10-assist season.

Of course, he’s going to be in focus, but “Ibra” is not the only important part of Saturday’s matchup. Here’s this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:

1. The space around the line

The speed and movement of Samuel Armenteros seems like a bad matchup for the Galaxy, when you look at LA’s personnel. Do they have the type of central defenders who are going to track the Swede’s movements without seeing their shape tied up in knots?

But if you look at the first two goals LA conceded Wednesday against FC Dallas, you see a back line that was too deep, too compact, conceding all the freedom an opponent could want.

Particularly with Portland’s current formation, those are the spaces the Timbers can exploit. Valeri and Sebastián Blanco have feasted on teams who have given them too much room at that level. And the last time a team tried to tighten up? Armenteros snared his brace in Colorado. It’s a pick your poison dilemma, but based on how LA played on Wednesday, theirs might be Valeri and Blanco.

In the wide spaces, the Timbers have become adept at getting central midfielders Andy Polo and Cristhian Paredes forward earlier, before defenses can set, giving the attack a way to get behind defenses and hit the penalty area with numbers. Polo may be with Peru ahead of the World Cup, but Andrés Flores has also shown himself capable of doing that job.

If he can do so on Saturday and the Galaxy stay deep and compact, the Timbers are going to create problems. The type of goal Dallas' Ryan Hollingshead opened the scoring with on Wednesday? It’s easy to imagine the same shot from Valeri or Blanco.

2. Holding down the flanks

Ahead of the Timbers’ first game of the season, we noted the Galaxy’s wide threats presented a potential breaking point for the team’s defense. And so it was that left wing Emmanuel Boateng and right wing Romain Alessandrini had big days to open their seasons. Alessandrini produced the Galaxy’s game-winning goal, while Boateng eventually forced Timbers’ right back Alvas Powell to be subbed off.

Whoever Giovanni Savarese selects on Saturday will have to do a better job. Although Portland’s defending has improved drastically since the seasons’ opening moments, the Galaxy’s threat remains the same. Boateng is still one of the fastest players in the league, while Alessandrini, in terms of wide players, can be one of MLS’ most productive. Whoever of Powell, Zarek Valentin, Marco Farfan or Bill Tuiloma (brought on late at right back, last week) are chosen, Portland’s fullback play will have to improve.

At least, it will have to improve on week one. Over the last nine games, that’s been the case. But as it was in week one, the Galaxy are going to provide a more intense test. How they’re contained will reflect how much Portland’s improved.

3. And where is the Zlatan?

He will be LA’s main threat. He’ll control play, and even when he’s not on the ball, he’ll define the Galaxy’s approach. Whether it’s creating, finishing, or just distracting, Zlatan Ibrahimović will be his team’s dominant force. And it will be up to Portland to contain him.

How, exactly, you do that is something opponents have been trying to figure out for 18 years. The closest anybody has come was his own team, in 2009-2010, when FC Barcelona stopped passing him the ball. Since, Ibrahimović has 246 goals in 327 games, almost exclusively while playing in three of the five best leagues in the world (Italy, France, England).

He’s too skilled to play off and hope he won’t score, because he can also create for others. He’s too powerful to ignore when he’s not on the ball, and even when he’s not on the field, you have to worry when he’s going to come on, as his two-goal debut against Los Angeles FC showed.

Maybe Portland should take a page from Barcelona and keep him from the ball. Obviously, that’s easier to do when he’s on your team, but the principle remains the same: deny, deny, deny. Else, best hope the 90 minutes Ibrahimović played mid-week means he’ll be held out of Saturday’s early start.