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Crossing the Touchline: Crew vs. Portland Timbers

Learning more about a Portland side the Crew haven’t seen since 2019.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in over three years, the Columbus Crew face off against the Portland Timbers. The two sides, although on different ends of the country and in different conferences, have a rich history. Both teams had head coach Caleb Porter bring the sides an MLS Cup title and Columbus was the backdrop for Porter and Portland’s Cup-winning victory. Since then, a lot has changed for both teams.

To prepare for Sunday’s match between the Timbers and Crew, Massive Report wanted to learn more about Portland. That’s where Alex Barnes comes into the story. Barnes covers Portland for Stumptown Footy. We spoke with Barnes this week.

Massive Report: With additional franchises entering the league, the Crew hasn’t faced the Timbers since all the way in 2019, with Portland besting Columbus in Porter’s first match against his former side. Who should Black & Gold supporters watch on the 2022 edition of the Timbers?

Stumptown Footy: Great question! Crew fans will probably still be familiar with two of the Timbers’ veterans that started that match in 2019 in midfielders Diego Chara and Seba Blanco. Chara at age 36 is still making lung-busting runs to stop counterattacks dead in their tracks and playing like one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. Blanco’s production has dropped off a little bit since his ACL injury in 2020, but his seven goals and eight assists in MLS this year show that he’s still a threat to any team.

The other players I’d watch out for are midfielders Eryk Williamson and Santiago Moreno, and goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic. Williamson has evolved into somewhat of a Darlington Nagbe role for the Timbers due to his passing range, ball-carrying, and ability to retain possession in midfield. Moreno has had a breakout year for the Timbers after arriving from Colombia last season, scoring 6 goals and providing 8 assists from out wide.

Ivacic became the first-choice goalkeeper this year after Steve Clark went to Houston and has been nothing short of incredible for the Timbers. His 103 saves are the second-highest in MLS so far in 2022.

MR: After a rough spell of matches, Portland’s now on a four-game winning streak at a perfect time. What’s clicked that’s allowed Portland to get on this run?

SF: This season has yet again been a story of the Timbers starting poorly before going on a late-summer charge to get into the playoffs. In my opinion, the last four matches specifically have been down to a formation change and the benching of under-performing defensive players.

Head coach Giovanni Savarese has shifted from the Timbers’ traditional 4-2-3-1 to a much more stable-at-the-back 3-4-2-1, bringing defender Zac McGraw into the backline for Larrys Mabiala (who has been fairly poor this season) and moving Santi Moreno into the right wingback position instead of Josecarlos Van Rankin.

The change has allowed the wingbacks to push a lot higher up the pitch without sacrificing a body in defense when the ball gets turned over, which is something that was burning the Timbers quite a lot earlier in the season.

MR: How does Portland change the team’s tactics for away matchups? Do you see the timbers playing more defensively, on the counter, or is Portland a side that will try to force its strategy on the other team? Do you think playing at 10 a.m. PT will be a hindrance too?

SF: I think one of the cool (and sometimes frustrating things) about Savarese is that he wants his team to play the same way every game whether it’s home or away. The Timbers are very much a team that wants to soak up pressure and burn you with all of their pace on the counter, and punish you with goals from set-pieces.

That’s not to say they aren’t capable of holding onto the ball and retaining possession for periods of the game, but their goal is to get you to turn the ball over and get to your goal as fast as they can. In terms of playing at 10 a.m. PST, I know it’s going to be a hindrance to me! But joking aside, I wouldn’t expect that to be much of an issue for a team of professional players.