Columbus Crew SC continue west from Dallas, Texas for their second game in a three-match week against the Portland Timbers on Wednesday. Crew SC find themselves still sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference following their tough but uninspiring draw against FC Dallas. Though the playoffs seem assured, Columbus has a chance to either overtake New York City FC for third or be caught by the fifth place Philadelphia Union, so all points are important during the season’s final six matches.
The Black & Gold have a nine-point cushion on D.C. United and are 10 points up on the New England Revolution. Realistically, barring a five- or six-match win streak by either D.C. or New England, Columbus need six points to qualify for the playoffs, and the Black & Gold have an excellent chance to do so with matches two and three of a congested week.
Grabbing a point at Portland will be no easy task. The Timbers ran off a 15-match unbeaten streak from April through mid August, but have plummeted back to Earth since then. In the eight games following the streak, Portland has only seven points. Still, it’s been difficult for Eastern teams to win in Portland. The Timbers are unbeaten in their last 12 home matches against Eastern foes dating to last season.
Portland at a glance
Leading Scorer: Diego Valeri (10)
Assists Leader: Diego Valeri (10)
Old Friends and New Situations
Every match against Portland is a reminder of Crew SC’s heart-breaking home loss to the Timbers in Columbus in the 2015 MLS Cup Final. Following that match, the teams have gone in drastically different directions. Aside from a difficult 2016 campaign that saw Kei Kamara force a trade out of Columbus, Crew SC have held relatively firm as one of the top teams in the East. The Black & Gold still have six players from the 2015 MLS Cup final squad on their active roster.
Like Columbus, Portland faltered in the season following their MLS Cup championship, finding themselves outside the playoffs in 2016. The Timbers similarly regained their form in 2017, entering the playoffs as the West’s top seed, but crashed out in the Western Conference Semi-finals. Former manager Caleb Porter resigned almost immediately following the playoff exit and has still yet to take another coaching job. Almost exactly one month later, Portland traded star midfielder Darlington Nagbe to Atlanta, and a few months ago shipped striker Fanendo Adi to FC Cincinnati.
The Timbers brought on former New York Cosmos manager Giovanni Savarese to lead the team into it’s new, Nagbe-less, era one moth after Porter’s resignation. Savarese has spent this season getting his MLS legs and putting his stamp on the Portland team. Savarese, like Porter before him, does not commit to one specific playing style or starting lineup, preferring to tailor the Timbers’ approach to their opponent.
Valeri, Valeri, Valeri
Through all of Portland’s changes, one thing has remained consistent: Diego Valeri. The Argentine maestro has been pulling the strings for the Timbers since 2013 and is instrumental in their success. This season, Valeri has scored or assisted on 20 of Portland’s 41 goals.
The talismanic midfielder has started in 27 of Portland’s 28 matches this season, having only been rested during a recent trip to New England. So, with Portland also on match two of a three-game week, and without the luxury of having had off during the international break, there’s at least a chance that Valeri is sat to start this match. Don’t count on that. This is Portland’s only home match during their congested week.
Despite Savarese’s flexible approach, his lineups have tended toward a 4-3-3 in recent contests. The back four is made up of two traditional center-backs flanked by Jorge Villafana and Zarek Valentin. The two outside backs will provide width and contribute to the attack, but do not get as involved in the offense as the Crew SC’s outside backs. The middle three is made up of two box-to-box midfielders flaking a holding midfielder. Diego Chara has been one of the more dominant central-midfielders in MLS during his time with Portland, and continues to be an integral part of their setup. The front three typically consist of two attacking midfielders flaking a striker who occasionally drops into the midfield.
Valeri’s creative counterpart is fellow Argentine Sebastian Blanco. Blanco has scored six goals and assisted on four more. If you are keeping track, that’s 30 goals assisted and scored between Valeri and Blanco.
Swedish striker Samuel Armenteros joined Portland’s attack this season and was tapped as the replacement for Adi and an example of the Timbers’ new style. Where Adi was an out-and-out target striker Armenteros is much more comfortable with the ball at his feet. Armenteros has a deadly shot and is not afraid to fire early or take on a defender one on one.
Armenteros has fallen a bit out of favor in September, though that may be a factor of a first MLS season swoon, and has recently been replaced in the starting lineup by Jeremy Ebobisse. Still, expect Armenteros back in the lineup and ready to lead the Timbers’ front line.
How Crew SC win
The obvious objective is to limit Valeri’s effectiveness. If Portland score a goal, there’s a 50 precent chance it comes from a Valeri shot or pass. But, if you focus too much on Valeri then Blanco will punish you. The Timbers have been lethal on the counterattack all season and will likely cede possession to the Black & Gold and attempt to score off the counter. Crew SC must be accurate with their passes and avoid getting caught too far up the field.
Expect some moderate squad rotation from Columbus. On match two of a three-game week, it would be a surprise to see Federico Higuain get a second start. We might see Gyasi Zardes start on the bench as well after playing in two matches for the U.S. Men’s National Team last week, like we saw with Wil Trapp against Dallas.
With a bottom-dwelling Colorado side traveling to Columbus this weekend, Gregg Berhalter will have to decide whether to rest his core starters against Portland to have a good shot at three points on Saturday or to go for a win in Oregon with the chance to solidify another win on the weekend.
A point against Portland will go a long way toward clinching the Black & Gold’s spot in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.