The last time Minnesota United faced the Portland Timbers it was not pretty. On the hottest day of the year in Portland, Minnesota took an early lead in the second minute on a goal by Adrien Hunou and held on for a 0-1 win in a game that was interrupted by a still-unresolved accusation of the use of racially abusive and sensitive language against Timbers player Diego Chará. Hoping, it seems, that the incident would just go away, MLS ended their investigation into the matter inconclusively, while MNUFC has never provided an explanation of what happened, offering only a simple denial.
This time the Timbers will arrive at Allianz Field with heavy legs after a grueling 2-1 midweek win against LAFC. Normally this would put head coach Giovanni Savarese in the tough spot of needing to think about rotating his starting XI but in 2021 Portland has been a team in rotation, with twenty-five different players getting a start. The Timbers will also come with Diego Valeri, who notched his 100th goal as a Timber against LAFC. Leading the team in shots and chances created he remains Portland’s talisman. “Valeri can pick any pass he wants,” Wil Trapp noted after training this week, “and can get into space very well.” In addition to Valeri, Portland is being led this year by Felipe Mora, with five goals in all their games, and Josecarlos Van Rankin with five assists. In regular season games Dairon Asprilla and Jeremy Ebobisse have tallied three goals apiece.
Like Minnesota, though, Portland is struggling to score. Of their 168 shots only 45 have been on goal, and a mere 17 have found the back of the net, compared to Minnesota’s 195 shots, of which only 49 have been on target, with 13 going in. Just as Portland now sits one spot ahead of Minnesota in the Western Conference standings, in the sixth and seventh spots, Portland also sits one place ahead of Minnesota in rankings of teams’ ability to get shots on goal, with Portland at 26th with a paltry 26.1% and Minnesota at 27th with an even worse 25.1% of their shots being on target.
After a first week together before last weekend’s game against Seattle the Loons full offense of Fragapane, Hunou, Robin Lod, and Emanuel Reynoso is still sputtering. While the numbers are good, with Reynoso being one of the best in the league at creating chances and the team in general generating opportunities, the results and the eye-test are less convincing. For whatever reason this offense has not clicked. The team continues to insist that the problem is fitness and playing time - especially for Hunou and Lod - but certainly we are deep enough into the season for professional’s to have worked that out. Something about how these players are training is not translating into a cohesive attack during games and given the impact that Niko Hansen had against Seattle, a very different winger than Lod, who, after moving up front to replace Hunou also provided a quite different look there, the suspicion must be that the problem is tactical and not individual.
Of less concern after the Seattle game is the midfield. Head coach Adrian Heath has always insisted that players make the starting XI based on their play. If that is the case, Hassani Dotson and Wil Trapp have secured their places as the preferred midfield pivot. Praising Dotson’s skill and willingness to learn Trapp described the midfield pairing as a good relationship, where “you’re taking what someone is good at and you’re taking what someone is not so good at and you’re matching them together. Hassani’s physical attributes, his range, his ability to win balls, and then also to get forward is what makes him a great player. And for me… that helps me do what I’m good at… which is [to] dictate play and move the ball from my spot forward. In that sense the relationship is continuing to grow. We love to talk about the game together, we love to continue to sharpen each other.”
After a very good performance against Seattle the make-shift defense will be one step closer to what seems to be Heath’s preferred line as Romain Métanire has returned from France after an unexpectedly long stay to work on his green card. Practicing with the full team for most of the week he should be available for the start, but if he isn’t, DJ Taylor has proven himself to be a quite capable back-up. Michael Boxall, meanwhile, still seems to be a step away from being available. Listed as questionable, his training this week was mixed, spending some time with the full team and some time working alone. Although this is an important game it would probably be good to err on the side of caution with Boxall tonight; a loss would be bad, but a setback in Boxall’s recovery at this point might keep Minnesota below the playoff line for the rest of the season.
Entering the middle-third of the season the Western Conference is beginning to sort itself out. Seattle and Sporting Kansas City are again separating themselves at the top of the conference. Colorado, LAFC, and the LA Galaxy are fighting to prove that they are legitimate, while Dallas seems to have fallen off the back. Which leaves a host of middling teams who will compete to stay in the playoff hunt through the difficult days of summer. With Minnesota about to make a swing out west, to LAFC on short rest for a mid-week game and then to Vancouver next weekend, tonight’s game against Portland feels important. Historically Minnesota has had the better of the Timbers, going 5-2-1 against them all-time and winning every game played in St. Paul. But with a goal differential of only +1 (14-13) the games have been tighter than they might seem. With a win tonight the Loons will move comfortably into the middle of the pack, while dropping points will make it that much harder to stay in contention. With all of that a tight game becomes that much tighter.
Ike Opara: out (undisclosed)
Dayne St. Clair: out (international duty)
Michael Boxall: questionable (right thigh)
Jeff Attinella: out (right rectus femoris surgery)
Claudio Bravo: out (international duty)
Ismaila Jome: out (left achilles tendon)
Jaroslaw Niezgodo: out (left ACL surgery)
Andy Polo: out (right quad and knee)
Eryk Williamson: out (international duty)