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The Opening Act: Chicago Fire v Portland Timbers, MLS game 3 preview

Men in Red hoping to break out against a struggling side from the Rose City

Let’s play two! Tomorrow! This is fun.

History

Let’s just get this out of the way: The Chicago Fire have never managed to win a game against the Portland Timbers in MLS play. We’ve played eight times; in the aftermath of those contests, the Fire have added a grand total of four points to their standings total.

So, yeah.

Fire v Portland Timbers all-time: 0W 4L 4D; 9 GF, 14 GA

Fire v Portland Timbers at home: OW 1L 2D; 3 GF, 4 GA

Recently

The Giovanni Savarese era in Portland is off to an uncertain start amid suspicions that Caleb Porter got out while the gettin’ was good. Savarese’s attempts to fashion the Timbers into a manic-pressing collective are a work in progress, and are meeting with some resistance in the locker room, if last week’s complete omission of Portland captain Liam Ridgewell from the gameday roster is any indication.

It’s hard to blame Savarese for taking drastic action after watching his team getting fed, head-first, into a wood-chipper against New York Red Bulls. I mean, watch that highlight reel and tell me you wouldn’t be benching somebody, anybody after that game. In short, the side from the Rose City is casting about for an identity in 2018.

Probable Starters

Scouting this game

Positive game state: With both teams low on self-belief, and each playing a style of football that demands maximum effort and awareness, scoring first and maintaining that positive game-state could be hugely important. Watch for signs of the subtle depression of incipient failure - the quiet players turning inward in their expressions, the extroverts becoming desperate, hortatory, and furious. One of these teams could leave this game marked out as one of 2018’s real dog-turd sides and the feelings (or revealing absence of same) this could provoke are substantial.

Win physical battles: If the Fire play again with the relatively tiny central defensive tandem of Johan Kappelhof and Kevin Ellis, Portland may simply try to overwhelm Chicago by playing directly to massive target man Fanendo Adi (which is why we project the return of Christian Dean to the XI). Whoever starts at the back for the Men in Red will need to win their share of physical challenges against Adi. A successful effort against Adi will not look pretty - half-won headers to no one look like failure, but when compared with a flick to an onrushing Diego Valeri it’s a good outcome.

(Can we) pass through pressure: The Timbers may come out in full gegenpressing mode, a tactical gambit the Fire routinely ate for lunch in 2017 thanks to their abundance of midfield riches. Can we still do that with this year’s lineup? And if we can’t, how will we play?

No howlers: Richard Sanchez has been asked to play the riskiest position on the field in the riskiest manner conventionally available, sweeping up high behind a very advanced defensive line, and he’s shown that (at the least) he has the physical and technical tools for the job. But the mental part of it is still a work in progress, and the pressure that is surely mounting for the kid to Figure It the Fuck Out, Like, Now, Dude can’t make keeping a clear mind easy.

Enemy Q&A

Hot Time: Having had just a few weeks to get a feel for Giovanni Savarese, how would you characterize his approach to the game? In his fantasies, how do the Timbers play?

Will Conwell of Stumptown Footy: Saravese clearly wants to bring an energetic and disruptive approach to the Timbers, pressing opponents high up the pitch, turning them over in their own end, and quicly pouncing on any opportunities created. Unfortunately for him, the Timbers have been crafted over the last five years under the guidance of Caleb Porter to do the very opposite of that.

The Timbers, particularly over the last three years, have been a team most comfortable with welcoming their opponents on and presenting an organized and deep defensive block with the aim of opening up space for their attackers to run into once they win the ball. With players like Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe on the pitch, the Timbers thrived in transition and made it the centerpiece of their game plan.

In the first two matches of this season, the Timbers did things Saravese’s way and it just did not work out. The attacking players looked confused and disconnected, while the defenders were repeatedly hung out to dry and eventually seemed to give up on the new scheme, leading to the side’s embarrassing 4-0 week two defeat at the hands of the New York Red Bulls.

Of course, Saravese’s approach to the game throughout his coaching career has also been defined by pragmatism and tactical flexibility; both of which were on display in the Timbers’ third match of the season, a 1-1 road draw against FC Dallas. After a concerning start to the season, Saravese switched things up, shifting the Timbers back into an approach that the side is much more familiar with and seeing results immediately.

The future of the Timbers might be built around the high press; new arrivals like Samuel Armenteros, Cristhian Paredes, and Bill Tuiloma all seem like they would fit such a system. Now, however, the Timbers need to go with what works and to play into the strengths of the team’s core, something that Saravese has certainly recognized.

HT: Liam Ridgewell: Discuss.

SF: At times Liam Ridgewell has been a brilliant player for the Timbers. He is an intelligent player, capable of putting in a perfectly timed tackle, winning a header, or laying on a pass to spring the break.

But he just gave up against the Red Bulls two weeks ago and his subsequent banishment from the team should not come as any surprise.

In a match where the Timbers needed leadership to step up and make a difference, organizing the side in Saravese’s new approach to the match and keeping the team in the game after giving up the first goal, Ridgewell was instead caught walking back from a foray up the pitch and ball-watching as the Red Bulls scored their second goal of the night.

Now, if the social media scuttlebutt is to be believed, Ridgewell has been left behind for the second straight game as the Timbers continue their season-opening road trip and head to Chicago. In his place, “Ol’ Bill” Tuiloma will likely get the start alongside Larrys Mabiala after his MLS Team of the Week worthy appearance against Dallas last weekend.

Does this mean that Ridgewell is done with the Timbers? It could, but the door is almost certainly still open to the team captain. Saravese, it seems, is certainly willing to give players a chance based on their showing in training and, recent appearances aside, Ridgewell is the Timbers’ most skilled defender. If Ridgewell buys in we could see him back on the pitch this year. If he does not, then the Timbers have got a big chunk of salary cap space sitting on the sidelines.

HT: If Diego Valeri were clinging to a rapidly-disintegrating bridge with one hand while holding the bumper of a packed school bus with the other, how would the Timbers organize themselves around him to maximize the winnability of a football match? And who would get the winning goal?

SF: Diego Valeri has basically achieved sainthood in Portland, both through his heroic efforts on the pitch and his involvement in the community off of it. His ability to step up and make a difference last season, chipping in 21 goals and 11 assists for a side that was regularly gutted by injuries, kept the Timbers limping along just long enough to secure the top spot in the Western Conference before crashing out of the playoffs.

Although 2017 was the first year Valeri’s numbers have reached those heights, he has been the Timbers’ focal point since joining the team back in 2013. Most years that mean playing as the creator at the heart of the attack: dropping back, spreading the ball around, and occasionally making some magic happen. Last year, however, Valeri was given a different task and played as a second striker rather than a playmaker. The move paid off for Valeri, but it was born out of necessity with Fanendo Adi struggling with injuries throughout the season and players like Darren Mattocks proving to be less effective at providing the team’s scoring.

This year it remains to be seen how the Timbers will look to utilize Valeri. Through three disjointed game, it appears that Saravese sees Valeri as a playmaker, giving him and Sebastian Blanco the freedom to roam underneath Adi as a pair of attacking midfielders in last week’s match at Dallas.

This approach to Valeri’s game is somewhat heartening for the Timbers. While putting Valeri in a place to score oodles of goals and rack up assists is great, when the pressure is not on Valeri to be the sole generator of the attack, the Timbers have traditionally looked like a better and more resilient side. Harkening back to 2013, when the Timbers won the West in a much more convincing fashion than last year, or 2015, when the Timbers took home the MLS Cup, Valeri scored goals, but he was first and foremost a creator, making those around him better.

MVP Valeri is excellent for the Timbers, but when the team is in a position to get Valeri the maestro, the “Troesma”, the side is, I think, better for it.

So, to answer your question, the Timbers should have the back door of that bus open, ushering the children off so that Valeri can let go, diving to safety at the last second. And Fanendo Adi would get the winning goal.

How To Watch

As with most Chicago Fire matches this season, there will be no traditional broadcast television for this match. However, it will streamed free throughout North America through MLS Live. Registration is free.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included Sean’s projected lineups that had Lawrence Olum playing for Portland. Obviously, that will not be possible due to Olum’s red card against Dallas. We regret the error.]