Know your enemy! Each week we do a Q&A with our friends around the SB Nation Soccer world to get some insight on their team from those who know them best.
The Timbers find themselves second in the Western Conference, only two points back of their rivals from Seattle. They have to continue getting results as the season comes to a close, sitting only 5 points ahead of 7th place
because the West is garbage in a crowded conference.
Will Conwell of Stumptown Footy joins us this week to answer our questions ahead of the match. Will touches on team form, injury woes, and Portland’s end of season wishlist.
Q. Portland went into the International Break on a nice run of form, unbeaten in their last three games including a draw against Seattle behind enemy lines. What's been the key to Portland's good run of form?
A. Diego Valeri.
Ok, there is a little more to it than that, but Valeri is having a career year with the Timbers. In 26 games, the Maestro is on 16 goals and 9 assists and is widely considered an MVP candidate, despite the fact that David Villa will almost certainly win the honor for the second straight year. Those 16 goals are enough to make Valeri the Timbers' all-time leading scorer, passing up Fanendo Adi, NASL legends John Bain and Clyde Best, and USL star Byron Alvarez.
More recently, Valeri has scored a goal in each of the Timbers' last six matches, a run in which the team has taken 11 of 18 points on offer and pushed themselves back above the red line in the Western Conference.
Of course, there are other factors at work.
The arrival of Larrys Mabiala has helped to stabilize a Timbers back line that has been among the worst in the West this year for long stretches. The midfield is once again healthy and present after injuries and absences left the Timbers playing their 5th and 6th choice holding midfielders not all that long ago. And the Timbers' other attacking midfielders have stepped up their contributions as well, with players like Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco coming through at some key moments.
Q. NYC FC is banged up for sure, but Portland isn't without it's own injury issues. Fanendo Adi, Jake Gleeson, Liam Ridgewell and Chance Myers are all set to miss the match. Which of these injuries hurts (bad pun intended) the most right now? Who has to come back from injury at 100% if Portland is going to make a run at the MLS Cup.
A. Of the players that the Timbers will be missing on Saturday, the two that most stand out have to be Fanendo Adi and Liam Ridgewell. Gleeson, while an excellent shot-stopper, has had his issues this season and is backed up by long time Real Salt Lake keeper Jeff Attinella, who has proven to be of a similar level to the Timbers' No. 1. Myers, meanwhile, has been hampered by injuries all season and is planted firmly in third place on the Timbers' right back depth chart.
For all of his faults, Ridgewell is an extremely difficult player to replace. The Timbers are a different team with their captain on the pitch and the side need him to be fully fit and back in the XI by the time that playoffs start if they want to have a realistic chance at making a run at the cup. As it stands, the Timbers will miss Ridgewell's organization on the back line, his ability to hit an accurate pass out of the back, and his rock-solid positional sense.
More than any other absence that the side has dealt with in 2017, Ridgewell's prolonged and repeated injuries this year have had a real impact on the Timbers, and that will continue to be the case this weekend.
Adi, on the other hand, provides a very different sort of impact on the game for the Timbers. Although he has been passed up by Diego Valeri for the top spot on the Timbers' list of all-time leading goalscorers, Adi can be just as much of a game-changing player, bringing a combination of physicality, movement, and finishing touch that defenders around MLS universally find difficult to deal with.
Q. We're now in the stretch run of the season with only 6 games remaining on the schedule for the Timbers. [Within reason] what are the three things on your wish list for Portland that you would want to see before Playoffs begin?
A. 1. Games for Ridgewell. While the Timbers captain could certainly make an immediate impact for the side upon returning to the XI, there is something to be said for getting some real reps with Mabiala, his presumed center back partner, before the playoffs begin. The Timbers have the attacking power to make an impact wherever they play, but the team could do so much better on defense and anything that would strengthen that aspect of the side is worth a wish.
2. A hot streak for Adi. The big man knows how to score, but in his most recent games Adi has struggled to find the back of the net. Now, hopefully making his return from injury soon, Adi needs to get off the schneid and carry some good form forward into the playoffs. Of course, this also applies to the Timbers' other forwards, Darren Mattocks and Jeremy Ebobisse as well. While both have had their moments during Adi's absence, neither has been able to take much of the attack burden off the midfield and make something happen on their own.
3. A tactical approach that plays to the strengths of David Guzman. In the early months of the season it looked like Guzman would be the truth at holding midfield alongside Diego Chara. Calmly breaking up plays and distributing the ball around the pitch, Guzman was the focal point of the Timbers' game plan as they held possession and picked opponents apart on their way to a 3-0-0 start. Somewhere along the line, however, things went wrong for Guzman. Maybe it is the lack of offseason rest, having come to the Timbers from Saprissa just as the Costa Rican season was wrapping up, or maybe it is a change in how opponents pressure the Timbers in the midfield, but no matter the reason, Guzman has looked unsettled far too often this year and a return to the cool and collected play that we saw in March would be a huge boost for the Timbers.
Bonus wish: Another Darlington Nagbe goal. Because a Darlington Nagbe goal is rare, but almost always spectacular.
Q. Score Prediction?
A. Both teams are banged up, but the long trip and NYCFC's home form are too tough to resist, so I will go with a 4-2 loss for the Timbers.
Thanks again to Will for answering our questions— be sure to check out the reverse fixture at Stumptown Footy. Have your own take on the match? Let us hear it in the comments section!