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Crossing the Touchline: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC

A look at the Timbers from the Portland perspective.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

While Columbus Crew SC fans have tried to black it out, Saturday marks the second rematch of the 2015 MLS Cup Final, this time held at the venue where the game went down.

The Portland Timbers return to MAPFRE Stadium for the first time since the team’s triumphant Cup success. After both clubs missed the postseason a year ago, the Timbers are off to a flying start to 2017, while Crew SC has been middle of the road to begin the year.

Portland is 3-0 so far this season with wins over Minnesota United, the LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo. The Timbers have scored 10 goals, while only allowing three.

The Black & Gold meanwhile are 1-1-1, with a tie in the home opener, a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Dynamo and a 2-0 victory over D.C. United on the road last Saturday.

Saturday’s matchup should provide some entertaining soccer, despite both teams being without starters due to national team duty.

For a better look at the Portland side of things, we spoke with William Conwell of our SB Nation sister site Stumptown Footy.

Questions for Stumptown Footy

Massive Report: For the first time in the history of the Timbers, the team is 3-0 in MLS play. For those who haven't been paying attention what's been the biggest key so far to the early season success?

Stumptown Footy: The Timbers' roaring start can be attributed in part to a number of factors and there is not one thing above all others that stands out. However, some factors do loom larger than others, so let's pick a few out.

First is the Timbers' front four; the side shuffled around their attacking group this offseason by giving the axe to speedster Lucas Melano, moving Darlington Nagbe to the left wing, and bringing in Argentine winger Sebastian Blanco on a designated player contract. These changes gave the Timbers a very different look than we saw last year and near the end of 2015, allowing the team to bring more balance to their attack through the smart play of Nagbe and Blanco on the wings. Both Nagbe and Blanco have been excellent in bringing their full backs into the attack this year, giving the Timbers width even as they tuck inside to combine with Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, setting up the Timbers' two biggest scoring threats and exploiting the spaces left by defenses who key on that dangerous pairing.

Sticking with the midfield, the Timbers also made a drastic upgrade to the holding midfield role, bringing in David Guzman following the retirement of Jack Jewsbury, and moving Diego Chara into a No. 8 role where he is more free to roam the pitch and provide link-up play between the attack and defense. Since his arrival, Guzman has had a huge impact on the Timbers' play, shielding the back line and providing a strong base for the midfield to build from.

In concert, these factors result in a Timbers midfield that, when working as intended, can be suffocating; winning the ball high up the pitch, holding possession, and punishing teams for every misstep. In previous years that might have been it for the Timbers, but this Timbers team is more than just a one-trick pony; as we have seen in the opening matches of 2017, the Timbers are more than able to make adjustments to their game plan and can take teams apart on the counter or look to play a more direct game through Adi.

The caveat to all this is that the Timbers' back line has started the year off ravaged by injuries and remains the team's weak-spot despite getting the shut out in the Timbers' week two win over a ten-man LA Galaxy side. The side's depth has stepped up here, even getting a strong second half performance from fourth-choice left back Zarek Valentin against the Houston Dynamo last week, but it remains the thing that makes Timbers fans most nervous.

MR: I know Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi get a lot of the offensive credit, but when I've watched Portland play this year it's Sebastian Blanco that stands out. How has the new Designated Player helped improve this team from a year ago?

SF: To really understand what Sebastian Blanco brings to the team, it is important to have a good understanding of the man that he replaces in the Timbers' starting XI: Lucas Melano.

Melano, who Crew fans may recall from his (contentious) assist against the side in the MLS Cup, was a forward at heart, but played on the wing, staying high up the pitch and only occasionally coming back to help defend. Lightning fast and a wizard on the dribble, Melano showed promise when he joined the Timbers and there were occasional flashes of brilliance that made fans hope that he had turned the corner. However, all that promise never quite added up to a player who could fit in with the way that the Timbers wanted to play. In the end it was no surprise when the Timbers sent Melano back to Argentina on loan for 2017 with an eye toward selling the player on.

Enter Blanco.

Where Melano was all potential, Blanco is a player in his prime who understands the game and who immediately fit into Caleb Porter's preferred approach. A smart, hard-working player, Blanco has the vision and the technique to combine with players like Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, the savy and flair to make something happen in isolation, and the work-rate and grit to contribute on defense. Perhaps the game in which all of these qualities were most readily on display was the Timbers' week two win over the Galaxy when it was Blanco's perfectly placed outlet pass that set up the Timbers' lone, game-winning goal, and his fourteen (that is a lot) recoveries on defense that took pressure off the Timbers as the home side looked to pull equal.

This week, with Nagbe gone for national team duty, Blanco will be asked to shoulder even more of the burden for the Timbers when it comes to transitioning into the attack and coming inside to combine with the rest of the side's front four. The diminutive Argentine certainly has the experience for the role, but it remains to be seen if he can step up when the spotlight is on him.

MR: Nagbe will obviously miss this game on national team duty. How big of a loss for the Timbers is he and where does Caleb Porter turn with him out of the lineup?

SF: How the Timbers will fare without Nagbe in the side is a question that is difficult to answer for one simple reason: it almost never happens. Aside from the odd call-up and the very, very infrequent injury, Nagbe has only missed a handful of matches since entering the league in 2011 and is the Timbers' all-time leader in appearances. When the LA Galaxy's Nigel de Jong stomped on his leg like he was trying to break it last season, Nagbe left the StubHub Center in a wheelchair but was back on the pitch for the Timbers after missing only a single match. For a player who has spent his entire career in MLS getting kicked, hacked, and generally roughed up, Nagbe has been remarkably resilient.

Still, playing without him means that the Timbers will be without their best possessor of the ball. As much as pundits would love to see Nagbe scoring goals and setting up assists every week, his biggest contribution to the Timbers game-in and game-out is to get on the ball under pressure and work his way out of it, either on the dribble or through his consistently accurate passing. In his absence, the Timbers will shift much of that burden onto Sebastian Blanco as there is no direct replacement for Nagbe on the Timbers' bench.

The side will almost certainly bring in Darren Mattocks for his first start of the season to replace Nagbe on the right wing. A pacey forward converted into a pacey winger, Mattocks will get forward and take players on one-on-one while still providing a willing presence on defense for the Timbers. Alternatively, the Timbers could bring in Dairon Asprilla to play on the right flank and shift Blanco over to the left. Like Mattocks, Asprilla is a speedy player on the flank who is willing to get back and defend, but he is more of natural winger than Mattocks and would likely stay wide on the right where Mattocks would drive inside from left.

To read Massive Report’s responses to Stumptown Footy’s questions, head on over to their Preview Interview.