It’s Friday yet again party people, and that means that another Orlando City game is almost upon us. It’s a packed weekend for soccer with the Orlando Pride, Orlando City B, the United States Men’s National Team, and the Lions all playing. For now, we zero in on OCSC’s opponent on Sunday, the Portland Timbers.
It’s been a tough start to the season for Portland, as three of the four teams the Timbers have played are fifth or higher in the Western Conference, with the lone exception being last year’s Supporters Shield winners. With that being the case, what do you make of the results the team has gotten up to this point?
Sam Svilar: The schedule makers definitely threw the Timbers into the thick of it with their opening slate of games, especially as you said with many of their opening games being against teams that they will presumably be battling against at the sticky end of the season.
That being said, up until last week the Timbers have handled their early season schedule remarkably well. A bevy of injuries and form issues have kept many of their best players from seeing the field, which includes the leading goal scorer from last year in Felipe Mora, their top playmaker in Sebastian Blanco, and their starting center back duo that anchored the back line to an appearance in MLS Cup. And despite those losses, the Timbers have gotten results: draws against the Revolution at home and LAFC in LA, and an important home win against a revamped Austin FC.
The most impressive part of those results has been how the Timbers have gotten them. They’ve shown a great amount of resilience over the start of the year, coming back from a goal down twice in the home opener and dang near snatching a win in LA after defending for their lives down a man after a red card. They’ve shown grit, determination, and a good deal of skill to get results despite being down 3-4 presumptive starters. The first three weeks of the season were pretty neat.
Of course, the 4-1 faceplant in Frisco against FC Dallas last weekend took a lot of the shine off of this opening season stretch. That game, and the first half in particular, was like the antithesis of the ways Portland has been playing all year — lack of urgency, lack of grit, and just losing individual battles way too easily. Portland never plays well in Texas, so the hope is that that game was more of “just a bad day at the office” and not the start of a more worrying trend.
Obviously, Diego Valeri is no longer with the team, something that feels strange even as a fan of another team. How has the team tried to replace him?
SS: Still not over this emotional and beautiful goodbye Valeri penned to Portland when he left:
— Diego Valeri (@DiegoDv8) January 20, 2022
Valeri’s departure, and the fact that he couldn’t go out with a trophy, hurts. The reality though is that the impact of his departure is more sentimental than on-field. Valeri’s role on the team diminished in 2021, to the point where he became more of a late-game super sub off the bench.
Gradually, the team turned to become more reliant on Blanco. His dynamism unlocks so many facets of Portland’s attack, and whether he is scoring goals himself or providing assists, Blanco has been the main playmaker for the Timbers in the attack.
However, the start of 2022 has been marked by Blanco not being quite 100% game fit. He has yet to start a match (although he might on Sunday), and hasn’t quite rounded into his full form on the field.
In his stead, it’s been Yimmi Chara taking the playmaking reigns for the Timbers. Less of a traditional attacking midfielder and more of a lively presser and passer, Yimmi likes to drift to one side of the field to create overloads, and have quick interplay with the ball between the wingers and forwards at the top of the box. He’s tallied two goals (yes, both of them bicycle kicks) and two assists to start the season, so he’s been doing an admirable job.
Still, the Timbers (and Yimmi) are better when Blanco is on the field. The attack won’t feel whole until he’s fully back.
It’s still very early in the season but what do you think the expectations should be for the Timbers?
SS: When you look at the roster, you realize that it is basically the same team that came within a couple penalty kicks from winning it all last year. So reaching that summit has to be this team’s goal: trophies or bust.
The Timbers are still squarely in a championship window. When Diego Chara, Blanco, and Mora are all on their game, then Portland can go toe to toe with basically any team in the league. They have steadily gotten younger with their new additions, particularly U-22 signings Santiago Moreno and David Ayala, in a move that both builds depth and also extends that window just a bit more.
For a team that won the MLS Back Tournament and made two MLS Cup finals in the last four years, the expectation is squarely on adding more silverware to the trophy case.
Are there any injuries, suspensions or call-ups that will keep players unavailable for selection? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
SS: The only international absence this window is Bill Tuiloma. He’s started Portland’s last four games, and so that’s one player who has been relied upon to start absent. Thankfully, Dario Zuparic is healthy and came off the bench in Portland’s last game, and is likely in line to make his first start of the season.
As for injuries, striker Felipe Mora is still out recovering from knee surgery. Midfielder Eryk Williamson, once in the mix with the U.S. Men’s National Team, has been recovering from a torn ACL suffered last fall. The rumors are that he could be getting his first minutes since then on Sunday.
Lineup prediction (4-2-3-1): Aljaz Ivacic; Josecarlos Van Rankin, Zac McGraw, Dario Zuparic, Claudio Bravo; Diego Chara, Cristhian Paredes; Santiago Moreno, Yimmi Chara, Dairon Asprilla; Jaroslaw Niezgoda.
Score prediction: I think Portland responds from last week, especially now being back at home. We see the same motivation and focus that marked the beginning of the year return, and Yimmi Chara continues to pull the strings well. It won’t be perfect, but it will get the job done. 2-1 Portland.
Big thank you to Sam for the excellent update on Portland. Vamos Orlando!