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Timbers vs. Austin FC preview: Tough test in Texas
The Timbers face an equally desperate Austin FC team - without Diego Chara
The Portland Timbers (8-11-9, 33 points) head to Texas for the final time in 2023 to face Austin FC (9-12-6, 33 points) in a match where both teams are absolutely desperate for three points. The Timbers have momentum, while Austin has the home field on their side.
Should be one heck of a hoedown. Here’s your preview for Sunday evening (kickoff set for 5:30 p.m. PT, streaming on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV (FREE), and available on FS1).
What Austin will do
Josh Wolff’s Austin FC team are ideologues to a fault, and they haven’t compromised their style of play despite their tough season. Austin is a team that still wants the ball, and still seeks to use it to try to disrupt the opponent.
The problem is that this year it’s not exactly working that well. Austin haven’t been nearly as effective or lethal with the ball at their feet in 2023, and the players that carried their successful 2022 campaign — mainly Sebastian Driussi — have regressed and are far below their 2022 level of performance.
Austn still like to have and pass the ball, but their attacking moves aren’t progressing nearly as far up the field as they did in 2022. The last time the Verde scored multiple goals in a win was way back in mid July, which also happens to be the last time they won a league game. That has led to Austin being right where the Timbers are: looking up at the playoff line with time running out.
The poor form doesn’t mean that Austin still can’t be dangerous. They showed that they still have some bite when they scored a last-gasp equalizer against New England the last time they played. The Timbers experienced that bite personally the last time these two teams met back in May, when Austin did the exact same thing to Portland that they just did to New England and stole a draw at the death.
In short, expect Austin to try to use the ball and disorganize the Timbers defense to exploit gaps. It might not work as well this year, but against this Timbers team that probably isn’t capable of posting back-to-back shutouts, it might not have to be.
What the Timbers will do
Basically try to play as well as they did last week.
Last Saturday’s comprehensive 2-0 win over LAFC was as complete a game as the Timbers have played this season. From wire to wire they looked like the better team, and they did an impressive job of playing smart and pressing their advantage when it was there for them.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that they will need to do pretty much the exact same thing tomorrow. Playing on the road in Austin is of course a very different proposition than at home to LA, but the basic principles are the same: Portland will have to execute in all phases of the game and play smart in every area.
Last week was perhaps most notable for how resolute the defense looked. For maybe the first time all season, the backline scrambled well to close down LA attacks that got past the fullbacks to snuff out the danger. With the way that Austin likes to play and the areas of the field they like to attack, Portland will have to be prepared to do that exact same thing again at Q2 Stadium.
It will be a big task for the Timbers not just because of where they are playing (the last time the Timbers were in Texas it didn’t, um, go so great), but also because Portland will be missing their beating heart.
Diego Chara had to undergo an appendectomy on Thursday morning, and he is out for 1-3 weeks. He will miss the Austin match and a good chunk of the ones that will follow.
Ramifications for the rest of the season aside, Chara’s absence makes getting a result on Sunday even more challenging. The Godfather put in a huge shift against LAFC, disrupting the midfield and breaking up several plays in quintessentially Chara fashion. Without him, it will be on the expected duo of Cristhian Paredes and Bryan Acosta to marshal the midfield and step in to break up Austin’s attacks the best they can.
On the other end, Portland’s attack is for once finally looking free-flowing and dynamic. With the Timbers almost assuredly setting up in a mid-to-low block and looking to counter-attack Austin, the attacking moves will need to continue the trend Portland is on if Portland wants to have a fighting chance to win a point or three.
Will they be able to do it? It’s a tough ask. Last August marked the first occasion in three visits that the Timbers came away from Q2 Stadium with any positive result (it happened to be a win), and Austin has been quite good at home this year. So history isn’t fully on Portland’s side.
And yet… we keep expecting this Timbers team to finally falter and fully flatline — and they just keep kickin’. I don’t know if they can keep it going in Austin — but I do know that Portland’s season was dead to rights about a month ago, and they’re still in the playoff conversation. It will be a tough test — but not an impossible one — to keep that conversation going after Sunday.