The Portland Timbers (10-4D-9, 34 pts) will host the Chicago Fire (7-9D-10, 30 pts) at Providence Park on Wednesday night. It will be the second home match in a row for the Timbers, who find themselves perfectly poised to make a late-season run for a playoff spot thanks to a massive home stretch of matches.
The Big Picture
Take a deep breath. The Timbers find themselves at the penalty spot, with a chance to send themselves to the playoffs. All they have to do is execute. Portland exhales and approaches the ball. Will they rise to the occasion or Abdul-Salaam it off the posts?
Since that dreadful run of form to start the season, Portland has made all the right moves—signing Brian Fernández wasn’t a bad place to start, nor was defeating both Cascadia rivals. A hiccup in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals can’t cancel the phenomenal run of form that included beating Seattle in Seattle, shellacking the LA Galaxy twice (rare!) and defeating LAFC away (super rare!!). Portland are now undefeated in seven of their last eight MLS matches and ready to shake up the West:
FiveThirtyEight’s MLS predictions give Portland a 90% chance to make the playoffs (second only to LAFC in the West) and 53 points for the season (on par with Seattle and Real Salt Lake). Despite trailing these teams in the standings, Portland has a game in hand and play 10 out of their 11 remaining matches at home. But how realistic is this prediction?
In order to hit a 53-point total, the Timbers would have to earn 19 points from their remaining 11 matches. This is certainly feasible, but it won’t be easy. After Wednesday’s match, only two remaining matches will be against a team currently outside playoff position—Sporting Kansas City—who will likely be fighting for a spot anyway.
Not to jinx it, but the Chicago Fire are the only team the Portland Timbers have never lost to in Major League Soccer. This match should be no exception. Portland are coming off a strong showing and are undefeated at home since the opener against LAFC. Chicago struggled mightily in July, dropping points to three playoff outsiders, but their last three matches have garnered seven points, all from teams they trail in the table. Still, the Fire have earned only six points from 12 away matches this season.
Portland and Chicago have a peculiar history, including Portland’s inaugural home MLS match at Jeld-Wen field (this was also the first MLS win in the club’s history). Other notable matchups include a pair of four-goal draws and a dramatic home draw in 2014.
Lineups: who sits, who stays?
Timbers Head Coach Giovanni Savarese may elect to rest some players, alt5hough many already got that rest Saturday: Jorge Moreira, Brian Fernández, Cristhian Paredes, and Larrys Mabiala were all regular starters that sat, but their replacements performed well regardless.
Earlier in the season, the lineup questions were about who was capable of starting for the Timbers. Now, it seems they can’t find enough spots on the field. Guys like Jeremy Ebobisse, Marvin Loría, and Tomás Conechny—who all scored or assisted last match—are in danger of sitting to start the next match, with Fernández coming back from thigh stiffness and the whole team playing well.
My prediction is that Valeri gets some rest against a non-playoff, non-conference opponent, while Ebobisse retains his spot on the left wing. This could be a great time to get Tomás Conechny some starting experience, although it’s hard to leave out Loría after his glorious game-winner against the Whitecaps.
Tactics and Keys
Similar to the Timbers, Chicago run a 4-2-3-1, with Nico Gaitan as their creative attacking spark, Nemanja Nikolić up top, and Aleksandar Katai and C.J. Sapong on the wings. Dax McCarty and Brandt Bronico are the holding midfielders, while Francisco Calvo and Bastian Schweinsteiger shore up the back line.
Despite the lackluster record, Chicago has managed an impressive average of 14.2 shots per game, as well as a TSR of .580 that trails only Atlanta in the East (American Soccer Analysis). Portland can not afford to make stupid mistakes against a guy who’s scored 47 times in three years.
- Set pieces—Portland has had their fair share of struggles defending set pieces lately. Chicago will use Nikolić to cause disruption off of Gaitan’s deliveries. Whether it be Cascante, Mabiala, or Tuiloma defending, clearances will be absolutely necessary. This is exactly what went wrong on last week’s goal, while the Fire scored two of their three goals against Montréal off corner kicks.
- Defending the right wing—Moreira has been an attacking and tackling power for Portland this season, but it has come at a cost. He is constantly caught out of position, leaving the opponent’s left wing exposed and forcing the Timbers into a back three. Sapong gets a lot of action down the left side, with Chicago using the left wing on 40% of their attacks (whoscored). The ability of Moreira and Mabiala to stop C.J. Sapong and close gaps in the back line will be paramount to Portland’s success.
- Counterattacking—it’s no secret that the Timbers like to counter—and with some of the most talented attackers in the league, they have the skills to get it done. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been a defensive presence since moving to center back, but there’s no reason Fernández, Blanco, & Co. can’t crack Chicago.
Prediction: 2-0 Timbers
Overall, this is Portland’s game to lose. A win is expected and anything less will be disappointing. We have seen the Timbers falter in this same position a few weeks ago, drawing both Colorado and Orlando at home, so it’s now time to atone for past mistakes and hit the mark.
- Kickoff: Wednesday, August 14th, 2019 at 8:00p Pacific
- Location: Providence Park, Portland, OR
- TV: Root Sports (Local, Comcast 34/DirecTV 687), Streaming on ESPN+
P.S.: Some personal news—this will be my first match in the press box! Big thanks to Doug, Kevin, and everyone else who’s helped me get here. Go Timbers!