Portland Timbers @ Vancouver Whitecaps Match Preview: The Cascadia defense begins
What to expect in tonight's Cascadian showdown in BC.
After an encouraging point won in Dallas, the Portland Timbers (1-3-2) are on the road yet again as they begin their campaign to defend the Cascadia Cup in the house in the middle of BC, where they face the Vancouver Whitecaps (1-2-3).
Here’s what to expect when the side square off at 7:39 p.m. PT, streaming for free through MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.
A look at the opposition
There’s a phrase that one of my soccer coaches once uttered when describing the Vancouver Whitecaps, and it’s a label that they just can’t seem to shake: “They’re a team that just doesn’t care.”
It’s become an apropos title to describe the Portland Timbers’ northern-most Cascadia rival. It never has felt like the Whitecaps have ever really cared what anyone thought of them, and also haven’t cared about any of the narratives that have been built around them. They soldier on in the face of perceived obscurity, vocalized skepticism, and whatever long-odds are tossed their way.
(That coach, by the way, was the most influential one I’ve ever had: my dad).
As the latest exhibit of that ethos, take a look at what they did to Minnesota a couple weeks ago, when 23-year-old Superdraft pick Simon Becher scored his first MLS goal:
Trailing by a goal on the road? They don’t care. Deep into stoppage time? They don’t care. A forward who made his 2023 debut just twenty minutes ago? They. Don’t. Care.
They’re a team that also is coming off of a huge 5-0 demolition of CF Montreal at home last week. Montreal has been quite poor this year and was playing down a man from the 23rd minute onward (the game was 0-0 up until that point), but Vancouver was already the better team on the field, and were utterly ruthless in their execution.
How were they so effective, and how have they put together four straight games without a loss? It starts with their shift to a formation that may be familiar to Timbers fans: the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree”. That formation shift has allowed them to put numbers behind the ball, preventing teams from transition opportunities.
It also allows their most effective attackers to find more dangerous positions. Chief among them in Julian Gressel, who Vancouver acquired last summer in a trade with D.C. United. He leads the team in assists with three, and his service has been Vancouver’s most dangerous weapon by far this season, whether he is flaring out wide to deliver balls into the box or doing so via set pieces.
The likely beneficiaries of that service are the ‘Caps two forwards, Brian White and the previously mentioned Becher. White has scored one goal in MLS play, off an assist from Becher, while Becher himself leads Vancouver in scoring with four goals in just 87 total minutes played. He became the fastest man to score his first four goals in MLS history last week, and will surely be a factor tonight.
Despite all of the recent success… it has been, well, just that: very recent.
Yes, Vancouver hasn’t lost in over a month, but last Saturday was the first time all season Vancouver has scored more than one goal in MLS play, and it was also their first clean sheet in MLS. And of course, it was also their first and only win of the season so far.
It also wasn’t the most recent game they played: the distinction belongs a 3-0 beatdown they suffered at home at the hands of LAFC in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
Outside of Becher and Gressel, Vancouver’s attacking core in league play has so far been disappointing, as it was overall on Wednesday night. To make matters worse for the ‘Caps, many of their aforementioned impact players played most of that, and will be headed into tonight on short rest.
So Vancouver, the team that doesn’t care, are still their consistently inconsistent selves. Despite their recent goal outburst and unbeaten run, they are a team that still has the looks of a beatable, yet still dangerous, side.
Timbers team news and outlook
The good news: Evander is now officially off the injury list and is set to be available. The bad news: Eryk Williamson took his place and is now on the injury list, and will be unavailable tonight with a knee injury.
While the injury doesn’t sound too serious, the fact is the Timbers will still be without Williamson tonight.
Without him, Portland’s ongoing predicament in central midfield gets worse. Evander can slot into the attacking midfield spot, but there is no healthy option to play next to Diego Chara in a double-pivot and do the two-way tracking that Williamson is normally asked to do.
Figuring out the midfield is one matter, as is setting up the rest of the team to handle Vancouver’s dangerous crossing. Gressel is a threat, and he will very likely be lobbing ball after ball into the box for Dario Zuparic, Zac McGraw, and company to deal with.
What Portland does with their wingers and fullbacks will be especially informative as to how they want to handle this game. Last week Giovanni Savarese deployed Juan Mosquera as a winger with Eric Miller behind him as right fullback. Miller did bomb forward on times, but he did stay home much more then Mosqeuera normally does in the Colombian’s version of the right back role, with the goal of keeping more of the game ahead of Portland’s defensive line while also stretching the opposition backline.
Portland could go that same route, or roll out the 3-5-2 again. The lack of central midfielders makes that a challenge however, despite the additional offensive flexibility. Franck Boli, the hero from last weekend, is set to play 30-45 this week. That’s probably not enough time available for him to start, but he could set to be an impact sub yet again, especially if Savarese opts for multiple forwards late in the game (it worked last time!).
However Gio lines up the crew, they will have to keep Vancouver’s attackers ahead of them. Portland mostly did a good job of that last week, and hey would you look at that it led to one of their best performances of the season. If the Timbers want to start their Cascadia Cup defense on the right foot, they will have to be sure to do it again.
Projected Starting XIs
Portland (4-3-3): Ivacic; Miller, McGraw, Zuparic, Bravo; D. Chara, Moreno, Evander; Mosquera, Nathan, Gutierrez.
Vancouver (4-3-2-1): Takaoka; Brown, Veselinovic, Blackmon, Raposo; Gressel, Cubas, Berhalter; Gauld, White; Becher
Any time Vancouver and Portland square off, there’s always fireworks. I expect nothing less tonight, and I’m going to be bold and predict a 3-2 Timbers win, giving them a second win in a row by that scoreline at BC Place. Mosquera, Moreno, and Boli score for the Timbers, and White and Becher score for Vancouver. It will be wild, it will be frenetic, and it will be stressful. So: the Cascadia Cup battle in a nutshell.