Timbers @ Cincinnati Match Preview: Can Portland ride the high?
The Timbers seek to make the turnaround real as they head to The Queen City for the first time since 2019
Man Saturday was fun, yeah? I hope everyone squeezed that game for all the juice it was worth — cuz it’s time to turn the page.
The Portland Timbers (2-4-2, 8 points) head to Ohio to face FC Cincinnati (5-1-2, 17 points) on Saturday, in the first meeting between the two sides since the MLS is Back tournament knockout rounds (kickoff set for 4:39 p.m. PT, stream on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV).
A look at the opposition
This ain’t 2019 anymore. FC Cincinnati are a team that has been basically entirely rebuilt and redone, and they’ve had a dramatic turnaround. Last season they made the playoffs for the first time, and made it to the second round before they were just beat out by eventual Eastern Conference champions the Philadelphia Union.
A big part of their turnaround has been in part due to a new philosophy from now second-year head coach Pat Noonan. He’s turned The Garys (awesome nickname, by the way) into a much more organized and cohesive team. Last season they were buoyed by the goalscoring prowess of USMNT rising star Brandon Vazquez, and the playmaking wizardry of Luciano Acosta out of the midfield. Behind that duo, Cincinnati banged in 64 goals in 2022, which was the second-highest tally in the East.
This year however, they have cooled considerably. Outside of one 3-3 thriller against Chicago, Cincinnati have scored no more than one goal in all of their games. That’s been good enough, as they have managed to grind out four separate 1-0 victories. That steadfastness lifted them up towards the top of the Eastern Conference, and in the race for the Supporter’s Shield.
But, that all came crashing down last weekend. Dealing with injuries and a two-hour weather delay, the Garys got rocked 5-1 (a scoreline the Timbers unfortunately know as well) at St. Louis last Saturday. They were without Lucho Acosta, and their lack of consistent offense finally caught up and bit them.
FC Cincinnati come into Saturday off of a really bad loss, and not many answers going forward. And, they are dealing with some injuries and fatigue issues of their own.
Acosta is still limited and will likely not start, and Brenner, another one of Cincinnati’s offensive stars, may also miss out, in what appears to be precautionary move as player has a transfer to Udinese lined up and almost finalized. Midfielder Yuya Kubo, and dynamic right back Santiago Arias will also be out for Cincinnati, and stars Vazquez and Matt Miazga are coming into this one on short rest, as they both featured for the USMNT in Wednesday’s friendly against Mexico.
Timbers team news & outlook
The bad news: Portland still has players unavailable — and now have a coach to add to that list.
Claudio Bravo went back on the injured list, as he suffered a calf injury that will lead him to miss out. Sebastian Blanco and Yimmi Chara, while now training in full, are still not ready to go and remain out. And Dario Zuparic was a late addition to the availability report due to entering health & safety protocols, which is the league’s designation for testing positive for Covid-19.
Also not making the trip to Ohio for a similar reason is head coach Giovanni Savarese. He is also in the health & safety protocol, and so it will be assistant coach Carlos Llamosa who takes the reigns on the sideline for this one. Llamosa is familiar with acting as head coach, as he’s done when Savarese was suspended for yellow card accumulation last season against Atlanta and the season prior against Real Salt Lake — both wins for the Timbers.
Llamosa’s task will be to help keep the energy from last weekend going, and spur the Timbers forward to try cement last weekend as a turning point for their season. The final twenty minutes of Portland’s signature win over Seattle featured as determined and motivated of a Timbers team as we’ve seen all season, and it paid off with what wound up being a 4-1 romp.
A big reason that Portland found all of those goals was that they found a piece of their attacking identity that has been gone for far too long: direct attacking with pace. The closing stages featured multiple attackers finding space to run at the Sounders defense, and key passes finally finding their targets.
A lot of that was seen in Portland’s second goal, when Santiago Moreno pinged a perfect ball to Nathan who turned and ran directly at the goal and slotted it home.
It can also be seen in Juan Mosquera’s capper, which was created by some industrious and hard-nosed running out of the defensive third from Cristhian Paredes.
For my money, that’s the platonic ideal of a Timbers counter-attacking goal. Multiple runners at pace, quick incisive passing, and the confidence to put the ball on frame.
Frenetic and wild energy aside, those are the types of attacking movements the Timbers have to bring into Saturday’s showdown in the Queen City. Portland still has yet to find its true attacking identity, and if they can start to figure out how to turn transition opportunities into scoring opportunities, it will go a long way to finding it.
Portland (4-2-3-1): Ivacic; Mosquera, McGraw, Miller, Rasmussen; Chara, Paredes; Moreno, Evander, Asprilla; Boli
Cincinnati (3-4-1-2): Celentano; Hagglund, Mizaga, Mosquera; Powell, Nwobodo, Moreno, Barreal; Santos; Vazquez, Ordoñez
Technically, the Timbers have never beaten FC Cincinnati. Yes, they advanced past them after penalties in their march to the MLS is Back crown, but that game was technically recorded as a draw. And the only other time these teams met under regular conditions was Portland’s last visit to Cincinnati, which yielded a bummer of a 3-0 loss (which was also the first game I ever covered for Stumptown Footy! Neat!).
But, this Cincinnati team looks vulnerable. Injuries, fatigue, and a monster of a loss last weekend could add up to a side whose confidence is shaken, and could be ripe for the plucking.
Winning on the road in MLS is hard, and that’s doubly true against a cross-conference foe. So I’m not going to go that far. But I am going to predict that Portland gets a result with a 1-1 draw. Franck Boli scores for Portland, and Brandon Vazquez nabs one for the hosts.