When the Portland Timbers were last at Providence Park, they left the field to their second straight 4-0 victory, having defeated the Houston Dynamo three nights after downing the LA Galaxy in U.S. Open Cup play. Every adjective you could use to describe a hot team felt applicable. Confident. In-form. Carrying momentum. Whatever a team is supposed to look like when everything clicks, that was last week’s Timbers.
Then a mid-week road trip happened, head coach Giovanni Savarese had to rotate his squad, and the Timbers left Montreal with a 2-1 loss. Many of the team’s veterans stayed in Portland, but after being handed their month’s second loss, do the Timbers still have the virtue of momentum?
In two days, we’ll find out. That’s when Portland will be back on the field, back at Providence Park, facing FC Dallas for the second time this season (8pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 Oregon, UniMás, Twitter). The first meeting came in April – a bitter 2-1 loss marred by a late, un-whistled Ryan Hollingshead handball – but it was at Dallas’ Toyota Stadium. In a different venue, with Brian Fernandez giving the Timbers a new look, how much can we take from that 2-1?
If anything, that April game was a turning point. When Portland followed that loss with wins at Columbus and Toronto, Savarese noted the team’s change actually started in Frisco, Texas. The team played well enough to win against Dallas, he was largely happy with the performance, and the non-call near the end shouldn’t overshadow the team’s improvement.
On Sunday, Dallas will see the product of that growth. Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus for this weekend’s match at Providence Park.
The Fernandez effect
Eight goals in six starts across all competitions speaks to Fernandez’s impact in Portland, but in the knock-on effect we’ve seen throughout the team, Portland seems to be playing with their new Designated Player’s confidence. The attempts we saw last Saturday from Marvin Loría, Jeremy Ebobisse and Tomás Conechny embodied Fernandez’s aggression, with the Timbers playing like a team that expects to score four goals.
Dallas will be a stiffer challenge, mostly because they have fewer limitations than the Galaxy and Dynamo. Head coach Luchi Gonzalez is dealing with the absences of Reggie Cannon, Bryan Acosta and Carlos Gruezo to international duty, but he still has more options than Guillermo Barros Schletto and Wilmer Cabrera carried into Portland. With players like Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal and Matt Hedges available, Dallas’ challenge should be stiffer than the ones that ended 4-0.
Expectations in defense
Another boon from last week’s games at home was the performance of the defense. Last Wednesday, the Timbers posted their first clean sheet of the season. They followed that performance three days later with shutout number two.
“Our centerbacks were great, as always,” goalkeeper Steve Clark explained, on Saturday, “but our whole team is really bought in, committed to defending. Even high up the pitch, it was fantastic.”
With those proofs of concept in place, there’s no reason those performances shouldn’t be the expectation, particularly at home. Though Dallas is tied or the second-most goals in the Western Conference, they’re sixth in goals per game, ranked only slightly ahead of the Galaxy and Houston. They’re a dangerous team, but they’re no attacking juggernaut. If anything, their challenge should be a nice, modest step up.
Just as the attack should be expecting a certain level of output going forward, so too should a defense which has left spring’s woes behind them. If the buy-in Clark mentioned is still there and the commitment persists, Portland should be able to keep Dallas off the scoreboard.
Dallas’ youth in Portland
While in Frisco, Portland got to see a Dallas team that’s adopted a slightly different approach. Although former head coach Oscar Pareja seemed more willing to take advantage of his team’s speed by playing more direct and on the counter, Gonzalez is trying to build convince his group’s technical quality. This year, his team is seventh in the league in possession (52 percent, per game), second in passing percentage (84.4 percent) and fourth in short passes per game (455).
Whether that approach can work in Portland will be one of Sunday’s most important questions. The speed with which teams can play on Providence Park’s turf could work to Dallas’ advantage, but there may also be an unfamiliarity with the surface for some of the team’s newer talents. None of Ferreira, Pomykal, Edwin Cerrillo, John Nelson or Thomas Roberts have played a minute in Portland, before. To what extent will they be able to adjust?
The same logic may apply to Gonzalez. This will be the first time the Dallas boss has had to prepare a team for Providence Park, and while the atmosphere itself will be something to contend with, there are also more basic things. Portland’s field tends to feel small to other teams. It plays faster. And of course, it’s a different surface. A visitor’s lack of familiarity with those factors gets matched against the Timbers’ mastery of those conditions. Does Gonzalez have a grasp on that imbalance?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Or maybe, the way Sunday’s match plays out, it won’t matter that much. But there is something different about playing at Providence Park. From the atmosphere to the elements, Dallas will have to adjust.