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Tactics Time: How To Chop Down Portland

How can NYCFC stay unbeaten in Cascadia?

MLS: Portland Timbers at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of ways for one to dissect New York City FC’s 2-2 draw against Atlanta United in the latter’s raucous home environment. Perhaps the most relevant angle to find was that the match — which will be cited by many as a testament to the quality of play in MLS — showed NYCFC’s ability to go toe to toe with the best in MLS on the road and still take points. To make that result even sweeter, the Boys in Blue proved they have the depth to survive a substantial injury early in a tough match and weather that storm.

On paper, the Portland Timbers seem like a much worse club than Atlanta. However, overlooking them would be a fool’s errand. With reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri still patrolling the midfield and striker Fanendo Adi capable of brilliance at any moment, former Cosmos manager Giovanni Savarese will give Patrick Vieira and NYCFC all they can handle.

Here are some tips on how to pick Portland apart.

  1. Line Up Like This

4-3-3: Johnson; Matarrita, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Herrera, Ring, Moralez; Berget, Villa, Medina

Bench: Stuver, Hountondji, Sweat, McNamara, Ofori, Lewis, Wallace

Ismael Tajorui-Shradi’s injury leaves an opening at left wing. While Jo Inge Berget is a natrual striker, his play as a winger combined with how Vieira deploys him out wide gives him the nod over Rodney Wallace. Jesus Medina and David Villa are back in the XI, provided Villa is 100% healthy and recovered from his injury. Jonathan Lewis finds himself on the bench, as the talented youngster could finally get some minutes in this tilt.

Alex Ring — fresh off of his first NYCFC goal — returns to his rightful place on the pitch alongside Maxi Moralez in the midfield. Yangel Herrera starts for now, but Ebenezer Ofori is breathing down his neck. After a string of performances that could teach a roller coaster something about going up and down, the 22-year-old Ghanian may end up supplanting Herrera if he continues to struggle. Tommy McNamara — who’s been pretty much a non-factor thus far this year — returns to the bench.

Ronald Matarrita is the left back in this one, as NYCFC can utilize his pace on the wing in this one. Ben Sweat will be relegated to a bench role, but will likely be subbed on. Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot retain their starting roles at center back, and Anton Tinnerholm is the right back. Sean Johnson’s game against Atlanta was uneven, but he’s back between the posts. Cedric Hountondji’s nod over Sebastian Ibeagha in the Atlanta match tells me that the Beninese center back may be positioned for more minutes.

2. Play a very compact defense. Most of Portland’s action goes through the middle.

MLS: Portland Timbers at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Savarese had fiddled with his formations and starting XI, trying to find the right combination. The only constants have been the aforementioned Valeri on the ball in the middle of the pitch, and striker Adi hanging out in the box waiting for service. Despite lining up in a wider role in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1, Valeri is at his best when he cuts into the middle of the pitch.

Portland rank 3rd in MLS in percent of possession in the middle of the field, coming in at 29%. They are 4th to last in possession in the left third. Coincidently, their left midfielder/winger spot has been a revolving door of late. Andy Polo has only recently solidified himself in the starting lineup, and the versatile, skilled attacker Samuel Armenteros yet to get his feet under him in MLS. Sebastian Blanco has been their best player this year — as he has been involved in four goals so far — but Valeri and Adi are what makes the Portland machine churn.

With the highest amount of shots from inside the 18 yard box in the league — and a disproportionate amount of shots coming from Valeri, Adi and Blanco — Callens and Chanot need to pack in defensively. Their quality paired with that tactic should stymie the Timbers’ terrific trio if executed properly. I personally would take my chances on Andy Polo scoring a winning goal if left unchecked.

3. Attack from down the wings to test an inconsistent full-back pairing.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

During NYCFC’s last match against the Timbers, they decided to attack their defense from a wide position to exploit a patchwork back four. That area still remains Portland’s Achilles’ heel. With Vytas Andriuškevičius still questionable for the match, Alvas Powell and Zarek Valentin will likely be the choices at fullback.

Powell’s style is similar to Matarrita in that he has tons of pace and loves to get forward, but his over-anxiousness can lead to some defensive miscues pacy wingers can punish him for. Valentin is a more physical, defensive left back, but lacks the pace and technical skill to become a top-shelf defender.

David Villa likely won’t be 100%, so MLS assists leader Jesus Medina will need to shoulder the burden of kick-starting NYCFC’s attack. While Jo Inge Berget is a better striker than winger, his work rate and runs without the ball from wide positions show he has some skill at the flank. If NYCFC want to sneak some goals past Jake Gleeson, the chances will have to come by way of skilled attacking from the wings.

4. Be patient. Portland has shown an inability to hold leads.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Providence Park is one of the toughest places to play in MLS. In addition to that, Portland has some great individual players and can score goals quickly. With all those variables at play, one would think that they could hold leads well. However, Savarese’s Timbers have been especially porous late in games, especially in the last two weeks. Despite winning 3-2 against Minnesota United this past week, they conceded twice in the second half, including an own goal. In the 79th minute of their match against Orlando City, they were leading 2-0. They lost 3-2.

Losses like that have the ability to eat at a team’s psyche, and the need to get out of that rut gives Portland an incredibly hard task. NYCFC should take solace in the fact that even if Portland score early, no lead can be classed as safe with this squad. Expect at least one goal (maybe more) in the last 15 minutes.

What do you think NYCFC needs to do? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @hudsonriverblue