Timbers vs. LAFC Preview: Fighting for their lives
Portland tries to keep their just-barely-breathing playoff hopes alive against a wounded but still dangerous LAFC.
The first three games of the Miles Joseph era of the Portland Timbers have been about as interesting as you can get: a disappointing loss, a signature win, and a wild derby draw.
The Timbers carry those recent result into a home bout on Saturday night against LAFC (kickoff at 7:30 p.m. PT, streaming on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV), a team that Portland hasn’t tasted victory against since 2021.
Here’s your preview of how Portland’s attempt to correct that history on Saturday night:
What LAFC will try to do:
Try to vent some frustration.
LAFC are on a bit of skid — by their terms at least. They’ve lost three of their last four, including their last two MLS fixtures in a row. The black & gold still are second place in the West, but two losses in a row is not how you want to start the stretch run of the season (just ask the Timbers).
The most concerning part of LAFC lately though is that they haven’t really looked like LAFC. The team once known for furiously pressing and controlling the ball looks like a shadow of its former self. The midfield hasn’t been coherent, the attacks haven’t been dangerous or creative enough, and the black & gold have resorted to just trying to play for the counterattack. A decent strategy in MLS, mind you, but decidedly a few levels below where this team was a year ago. To make matters worse, LAFC have been wasteful in front of the net since the Leagues Cup, squandering a bevy of golden opportunities which wound up costing them points.
Those issues compounded leave a less-than-stellar defense under pressure, and expose them for being, well, less-than-stellar. LAFC has won games in the past by overwhelming opponents, and recently they are simply not doing that.
Despite all of that… they’re still LAFC. Yes, they got Messi’d last weekend, but a week and a half before that they were pounding the Rapids into the earth. They are averaging 2.46 expected goals over their last three league games, showing that they still have the talent to be more than dangerous.
One of the players who is the most likely to capitalize on that danger, Denis Bouanga, is not in the LAFC squad, as he is away on international duty. In his stead, the ever-lethal Carlos Vela and newly-signed striker Mario Gonzalez will be the next likeliest to be on the end of their attacking moves.
This LAFC team is still one of the best in MLS, but they are mortal. They aren’t playing at their best — but unfortunately that may still be good enough to beat this Timbers team.
What the Timbers will try to do:
Continue to try to be juuuuust good enough, and hope the chances break their way.
The weird Timbers limbo season lurches along, and Portland has been doing just enough to keep things interesting. The faceplant against Vancouver wasn’t great, but it was ameliorated with a solid win over Real Salt Lake. And then came the draw in Seattle, which was amazing for vibes, but probably not the result needed to give Portland’s playoff chances a boost.
In all three of those games, we saw Portland’s shifted emphasis since Giovanni Savarese departed.
Interim head coach Miles Joseph has emphasized in his Timbers tenure the team focusing on getting their basic attacking and passing patterns right, particularly in the wide areas. We saw that emphasis work well in Portland’s second goal against Vancouver two weeks ago, and we saw it work… less than well in their attacking movement against Seattle last weekend.
The reality is that yes, while the Timbers showed a good fight to get a result against the Sounders, they also did not play very well and benefitted from some blunders by the home team. Despite scoring twice, Portland did a poor job of finding the open space and were not moving the ball quick enough to shift around Seattle’s compact banks of defense to generate looks in front of goal.
If you think that sounds familiar — you’re absolutely right! It’s been the story of Portland’s season, and is the reason for the aforementioned emphasis on improving the attacking passing patterns. If Portland can get those right, there will be space against the LAFC defense to get in front of goal.
But will that be enough? In both of their positive results under Joseph, the Timbers have been just about good enough, and have benefitted from a bit of luck. “Just good enough and a bit of luck” doesn’t really sound like a winning formula for a team that is struggling to get above the playoff line, if we’re being honest.
Toss into that the fact that Portland will be fielding a makeshift backline as they are missing Dario Zupairc (yellow card accumulation), Juan Mosquera (international duty), and Miguel Araujo (international duty), and my hopes grow even dimmer.
I expect Portland to make things competitive, but in the end they won’t have enough in the tank to get past LAFC. I would love to be proven wrong — I have been by this team so so many times recently — but my gut tells me that the chase for the playoffs essentially ends tonight.