This weekend the Loons head to Portland for their sixth game of the season. So far they are 2-3-0 on the year and their hosts are 0-3-2, picking up draws against the Chicago Fire and FC Dallas. This weekend’s match offers the Loons an opportunity to wash the bad taste out of their mouths after disappointing losses to New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United. On the other hand, it offers the Timbers a chance to show that their poor form this year doesn’t translate to Providence Park. This is Portland’s first home game of the year and they will be eager to show their home faithful a good performance.
Another first for the Loons at Providence Park
The Loons had their first taste of MLS action last year away to the Timbers, and now they have a chance to debut their first DP signing there as well. Darwin Quintero’s arrival coincided with a bye week for the Loons, affording him a few extra days to get accustomed to his new teammates and learn how the team operates. If Heath was hesitant to put his new signing into the lineup before getting acclimated, the bye week should put his mind at rest. The Scientist has had over a week to learn the ropes and by all accounts looked impressive in training.
Where he plays is another matter. The Loons lacked teeth against Atlanta two weeks ago and they will need to inject some creativity into the lineup. While a he is able to play in multiple positions in the attack, Quintero isn’t likely to force Nicholson or Finlay out of the lineup. That leaves two more spots through the middle: the 9 and 10. Through five games this season, the striking corp or Ramirez, Danladi, and Toye has racked up a measly two assists and zero goals. The 10-by-committee of Molino and Ibarra has three assists and two goals between them. Ibarra’s performances don’t exactly warrant being dropped, which may lead Heath to start Ibarra and Quintero together. The other option would be to put Quintero underneath Ramirez or Toye and pair their strength and size with the speed of Quintero. Having another goal threat through the middle may open up more opportunities for whoever leads the line and allow them to notch a goal(or three).
No Nagbe, No Party:
Portland suffered two major losses during the offseason: Caleb Porter and Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe was sold to Atlanta for a guaranteed $1 Million in TAM, with $600,000 in additional funds if Nagbe hits certain targets. Despite several successful years in Portland, coach Caleb Porter and the Timbers decided that it was time for them to split up over the winter. Porter was replaced by former New York Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese. Interestingly enough, Savarese almost became the coach of Minnesota United two years ago, but that job instead went to Inchy.
Despite their early season struggles, the Timbers have put up similar numbers to the Loons. Their six goals over five matches is equal to the Loons output. The difference comes at the back where the Timbers are averaging a league worst 2.4 goals against per game. Where it not for some defensive lapses, late game collapses, and the width of the post, they could be in the middle of the pack. Defensive mistakes aside, Portland still has arguably the best creator in MLS in Diego Valeri as well as his Argentinian compatriot, Sebastian Blanco. The two of them are responsible for feeding Fanendi Adi who already has two assists from his forward position. This could end up being a high scoring affair if the Loons aren’t able to corral the Portland attack and the Loons are able to get in behind the Timbers defense.
Key Matchup: Rasmus Schuller vs. Diego Chara
The midfield battle will be important in this game. The aforementioned Valeri and Blanco are both dangerous when on the ball in the attacking third. Everything good for Portland runs through their feet. The key for Minnesota comes not in shutting them down, but stopping their supply. With no Nagbe, the Timbers lose a player that excels at breaking lines and finding room to turn in tight spaces. His speed and deceptiveness always made him dangerous to opposing defenses. Schuller has put in several good defensive performances this season and he could be the key in closing down the passing lanes between the deep-lying Chara and the more advanced Valeri and Blanco. Schuller’s passing range makes him dangerous as a ball winner as well. With pace on the wings, and a dangerous new DP through the middle, a strong core and quick counterattacks may be just what the Loons need to continue the Timbers’ misery.