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Scouting Report: Burning Timbers

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In what seems like the impossible, the Sounders are back in the playoffs for the tenth straight year and must take on their hated rivals in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

What You’ll Watch

We’ve finally made it, the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. After a season of ups and downs that began in March, the “real season” starts now. First up for the Seattle Sounders is their Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers.

The Timbers entered the playoffs as the number five seed and defeated FC Dallas 2-1 this past Wednesday night. The Sounders, who finished as the number 2 seed, didn’t have to play mid-week and should hopefully be well rested for this encounter. Portland finished with a record of 15-10-9 (54 points in 34 games; 1.59 ppg) and Seattle finished with a record of 18-11-5 (59 points in 34 games; 1.74 ppg).

This will be just the second ever encounter in MLS postseason between these two hated rivals. The first time didn’t go so well for the Sounders, losing both legs and an aggregate score of 5-3. Making matters worse, it was Portland’s first foray into the playoffs and it also included Portland’s first win ever in Seattle. The Timbers went on to win MLS Cup 2015.

A Look at the Enemy

Last Five: D-W-W-L-W with ten goals scored and four conceded

Leading Goal Scorer: Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, ten each

Assist Leader: Valeri, 12 assists

Injury Report, Suspensions and International Duty

Portland

Out: Roy Miller (right thigh injury) and Jake Gleeson (bilateral tibal stress fracture surgery)

Questionable: None listed

Suspensions: Larrys Mabiala (red card)

International Duty: N/A

Seattle

Out: Jordan Morris (torn ACL) and Felix Chenkam (herniated disc)

Questionable: Brad Smith (right hamstring strain)

Suspensions: N/A

International Duty: N/A

Match Officials

REFEREE: Ted Unkel

AR1: Joe Fletcher

AR2: Kathryn Nesbitt

4th: Drew Fischer

VAR: Allen Chapman

What to Watch

Portland’s system

Head coach Giovanni Savarese has tried a number of setups, but the only one that’s worked for them consistently this year is a counterattacking 4-2-3-1/4-3-2-1 with a classic hold-up center forward and channel-focused attacking mids. To keep goals out of their own net it relies as heavily as any system we’ve seen from the Timbers on the abilities of Diego Chara, which have been well-supplemented by the capable David Guzman.

In spite of those two stalwarts sitting in front, this doesn’t have the feel of a strong, shut-down defense. That comes down largely to the center back pairing, which will likely consist of a diminishing Liam Ridgewell and one of Bill Tuiloma or Julio Cascante.

The transition game and counter-attacking is their bread and butter. They seem mostly incapable of mounting consistent sustained offensive pressure. Chara and Guzman’s ability to provide meaningful contribution to the offense is limited, and this leaves Portland looking to exploit Valeri, Blanco, and Ebobisse’s 1v1 capabilities. The most grating player in the league has had a strong season (10 goals, 11 assists) and provided a much-needed distraction for defensive attention away from Valeri. This Timbers team is no longer a jumped-up Montreal Impact.

The Timbers attack has remained wing focused and relies on pulling teams out of position and upfield. On turnover the outside backs push forward for support quickly; normal starters Zarek Valentin and Jorge Villafana are capable going forward, but don’t dive as deep as Seattle’s do. Width in the final third is somewhat lacking. There are few crosses from deep positions, and in general they’re a team that looks to create chances with passes and movement over lumping balls in to a scrum.

Matches with Portland are always heavy on the intangibles. The rivalry muddies so many of the tactical and talent variations on both sides. A good result in both the first match and the playoffs round will be as much about who can keep their head the best as who the more talented team is. Buckle up friends, we’re in for a fight.

Keys to game

  • Can Portland defense keep it together? Brian Schmetzer compared the match to a potential bar fight, and that seems an apt analogy. They rely often on physicality to stop teams from coming at them too fast and are skilled at riding the fine line between foul and “oops, sorry, just bumped into you”. They’re not a side that is going to wow you with their defensive talent or their brilliant alignment, and that should be exciting for a streaking Seattle offense.
  • Can Seattle handle the second and third balls on the Timbers’ counterattacks? If Ebobisse is able to hold up the first long ball played in he’s shown a talent for making good passes to the wave of runners coming up. Blanco and Valeri will make you pay if you leave them too much space or they’re able to spin defenders. Team defending will be the name of the game, and St. Frei will almost certainly be called upon to save us at least once.
  • How defensive will the Sounders play? The Timbers’ weakened back line presents an inviting opportunity. An away tie is acceptable, but the solid chance to head home with a couple away goals and potentially a lead is a hard one to pass up.

How to Watch

Date/Time: Sunday, November 4 @ 2:30 PM

Location: Providence Park — Portland, Oregon

TV: ESPN

Streaming: Watch ESPN

Radio: 950 KJR AM (English), El Rey 1360AM (Spanish)