Portland Timbers vs. Austin FC Match Preview: An opportunity to keep moving up
Portland returns home to face a struggling Austin FC
After the month of April saw the Portland Timbers (3-5-2, 11 points) play in the confines of Providence Park only twice, The Timbers return home to play four of their next five games at home. First up in May: Austin FC (2-4-3, 9 points).
A look at the opposition
Last season Austin took the league by storm, vaulting themselves to the upper echelon of the Western Conference in just their second year of existence. They made a run all the way to the Western Conference finals in the playoffs, only to lose to eventual MLS Cup champions LAFC.
This season… it’s been a different story. Austin currently sit in 11th place in the Western Conference table, and have regressed to be very middling on both sides of the ball — and that regression has decidedly been to the mean.
While Austin played very good soccer last season — valuing positional play and quick passing sequences to unlock defenses — they also over performed their underlying numbers by quite a bit. They out performed their expected goals number from 2022 by a whopping 14 goals, and rode supernova performances from star man Sebastian Driussi (who over performed his expected goals numbers by the second-largest amount of any player since 2013) to win games.
So it’s no surprise to MLS analysts that Austin is worse this year than last. Head coach Josh Wolff can laminate as many pieces of paper as he wants, but the standings and the numbers show that his team is struggling this year.
How that shows up on the field is, well, that everyone looks worse. Driussi has not looked like the MVP candidate he was last season with just two goals to his name, and the other players around him like Diego Fagundez have not been nearly as productive. Their defense has also struggled, dealing with an injury crisis of their own.
On the whole, Austin has regressed. They haven’t won since March 11. They should be ripe for the picking.
But this is MLS, and nothing is given and there are no easy games.
Timbers team news & outlook
Portland’s injury report continues to be a bummer. David Ayala is out for the season, and Dairon Asprilla is continuing to work his way back to full fitness with a right knee injury.
But in brighter news, both Yimmi Chara and Sebastian Blanco are fully available for selection. As we last weekend with Yimmi, players returning from injuries have shown to give a big boost for Portland on the field.
In dealing with Austin, Portland should be prepared for some aerial duels. Austin doesn’t pass into the final third often, but when they do, a large percentage of them are crosses. That’s a good thing for Portland, as the Timbers are among the top teams in the league in clearances.
But it could also be a bad thing, as Portland’s leader in clearances (by a wide margin), Zac McGraw, will be suspended for Saturday’s game due to yellow card accumulation. McGraw leads the backline with 64 totaled clearances on the year according to FBref, and the next closest player is Dario Zuparic with 26 totaled clearances. For that reason, among many others, McGraw’s presence will be dearly missed on Saturday.
Whether it’s Larrys Mabiala, who started when Zuparic was unavailable two weeks ago, or Eric Miller, who has played more minutes and been arguably the steadier presence on the backline, who starts in lieu of McGraw, they will need to be ready to handle any crosses that Verde launch into the box.
Austin will still seek to have a lot of the ball, and Portland should be perfectly happy to let them have it. The Timbers showed last week agaisnt St. Louis that they have started to become comfortable again playing against the ball on the counterattack, and today could present another opportunity for them to do so with great effect.
Portland (4-2-3-1): Ivacic; Mosquera, Mabiala, Zuparic, Bravo; Chara, Paredes; Moreno, Evander, Loria; Boli
Austin (4-4-2): Stuver; Lima, Ring, Väisänen, Gallagher; Redes, O. Wolff, Pereira, Rigoni; Urruti, Driussi
This game presents a great opportunity for Portland to continue their positive upswing, and start to swing together positive results. They of course could blow it — this is the Timbers we’re talking about! — but I think the momentuem they’ve built over the past few weeks is real.
I’m leaning 3-1 Timbers, with Moreno, Evander, and Paredes scroing. Driussi nabs one for Austin late.