Portland Timbers - starting lineup shot - 2015
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Know thy enemy: Portland Timbers

Portland Timbers MLSsoccer.com beat writer Dan Itel gives us the scouting report on Vancouver's playoff opponent ahead of Sunday’s first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal (2 p.m. PT on TSN1 and TSN 1410 radio).

What has made Portland so successful over the last month?

DI: There’s been a pretty distinctive change in Caleb Porter’s tactics over the past month, since they lost 1-0 to Sporting Kansas City and had to nab results from their final three games of the regular season to even make the playoffs.

He went to a 4-1-4-1 formation, or 4-3-3 depending on how you look at it, which featured one holding midfielder ahead of the back four (usually Diego Chara but Jack Jewsbury in their playoff win over Sporting). It added an extra attacker to the mix, allowing them to have both Rodney Wallace and Lucas Melano on the field together when before Porter had to choose between the two of them on the left wing.

And most importantly, it allows Darlington Nagbe to play centrally with Diego Valeri (editor's note: see #6 and #8 in the adjacent avg. player position graphic from Thursday's match). In that role, Nagbe has more defensive responsibilities to help out Chara or Jewsbury but he also has freedom to float, pop up and create chances.

It’s resulted in 12 goals in their last four games, when before they were averaging just about a goal per game, with Nagbe scoring three and adding an assist in that span.

Who are the key Timbers to watch?

DI: Right now, Nagbe is playing the best soccer of his career. Moving him to a central role has allowed him to really utilize his ability to be on the ball and more involved in the attack, as opposed to when he was a right winger and would disappear from the action for large stretches (editor's note: the adjacent graphic shows his successful passes from Thursday's match). 

Striker Fanendo Adi also has been rejuvenated in the final stretch of the season, encouraged by Porter to play big and mean, as he put it. He’s been great at holding up the ball for the Timbers’ other playmakers and he’s also found goals lately, with three in the final three regular season games.

Chara is still a question mark and we probably won’t know his status until game time. He’s obviously a key piece, and while Jewsbury was decent against KC, he just can’t do the same things Chara can. 

How do you feel Vancouver and Portland match up tactically? What will be the difference in this series?

Their games have been awfully physical this season – even dating all the way back to preseason when there were a ton of fouls between the two teams even in a meaningless game.

Highlights from Thursday's win over KC

Portland got a taste of it against Sporting on Thursday, when they were very compact to start the match and literally tried to kick Portland’s attackers off the ball all night long. It very nearly won the match for Kansas City, so I would expect more of the same.

If Vancouver are hampered by injuries in the midfield, I’d look for the Timbers to take advantage of that through Nagbe and Valeri and perhaps try to control the game possession-wise more than they normally have this year, as they’ve looked to go direct quite a bit more than you would normally think under Porter.

The difference in the series, I think, will come down to whether Portland can survive the quick turnaround from Thursday’s emotionally and physically draining extra-time game and head to the second leg in Vancouver with the series still within reach.

And the bottom line is Portland will have to keep up their goal-scoring streak to advance after only managing two goals against Vancouver in their three games this season. If Nagbe and Adi stay hot, the ‘Caps could be in trouble. 

For all the latest news on the Timbers, follow Dan Itel on Twitter at @dan_itel. 

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