Diego Valeri - Portland Timbers
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Talking tactics: An in-depth look at the league-leading Portland Timbers

VANCOUVER, BC – Carl Robinson called them the “the best team” in Major League Soccer.

And so far in 2017, Portland Timbers have been just that. The Timbers enter Saturday’s tilt with Vancouver Whitecaps FC (1 p.m. PT on CTV/TSN and TSN 1410) tied for the top spot in MLS with 13 points from seven matches. They’ve also scored a league-leading 16 goals in that span, which has them on pace to record the second highest single-season goalscoring total in league history.

So what has made them so successful? And what can we expect from them on Saturday?

Let’s take a closer look.

The danger man for Portland is Argentine attacking midfielder Diego Valeri. I wouldn’t call Portland a one-dimensional team. They can hurt you in many different ways. On the counter, in possession, through set pieces, individual brilliance, and so on.

But more often than not, it’s Valeri pulling the strings.

And he’ll be especially important on Saturday with striker Fanendo Adi suspended. Valeri is currently tied with Adi for the team-lead with five goals to go along with a team-leading three assists. Two of those assists came from set pieces, so the ‘Caps will need to be mindful of that. More telling is the fact that Valeri has created 20 chances on the season, which is the second highest total in MLS.

So how do you shut down Valeri and the Timbers?

Sporting Kansas City may have provided the blueprint last weekend, when they walked away with a 1-0 win at Providence Park. It goes something like this: pressure the heck out of them.

Peter Vermes’ side didn’t give the Timbers any time on the ball. As they often do, SKC applied pressure all over the pitch, which prevented Portland’s creative players from ... well, creating plays. Here are a few examples of SKC’s press having the desired effect.

In the first clip, Valeri literally has nowhere to go. SKC has essentially created a 5 vs. 3 situation, which forces the turnover.

And in the second clip, look at the back pressure SKC applies when Darlington Nagbe gets the ball. That is the definition of “defending from the front.” Nagbe eventually gets the pass off to Valeri, but he too is closed down quickly and that results in an errant pass.

So, sounds like a simple formula, right? Wrong.

SKC have been mastering their high press for years. It’s what their known for. Not only does that type of system require a high fitness level, it also requires a whole lot of cohesion. If you don’t have those things, it could make you more vulnerable at the back than you would be if you just sat back and soaked in the pressure, for example. If your opponent manages to “break” the press, chances are they’ll have numbers going forward. That’s the risky part.

So, keeping all that in mind, what should we expect from Portland on Saturday? For starters, here’s the starting lineup they fielded last weekend.

I’d expect three possible changes.

Former Whitecaps FC striker Darren Mattocks will likely get the nod in place of the suspended Adi, though 2017 MLS SuperDraft fourth overall selection Jeremy Ebobisse is also an option to make his debut. Former English Premier League centre back and Timbers captain Liam Ridgewell, who has missed the last six matches with a foot injury, is also expected to be available for selection, meaning Roy Miller or possibly Lawrence Olum would be relegated to a substitute’s role.

Finally, I think there’s a decent chance that Vytas Andriuškevičius draws back into the lineup at left back, replacing standout rookie Marco Farfan. Vytas has also missed six straight matches with a calf strain, but he went 90 minutes for T2 last weekend against WFC2.

And he also brings more of an attacking threat from the flanks, which according to Caleb Porter was exactly what Portland lacked against SKC.

“Obviously with their three holding mids basically flattening out and with their back four that block of seven and their wingers getting tucked in too, it’s basically a block of nine,” Porter said of SKC. “That’s a lot of numbers. You watch the highest level games in the world when a team puts that type of numbers it’s not easy. You have to get width to pull apart those two lines. You have to try to get in the layers. You have to get your outside backs forward.”

And that’s exactly what Vytas does.

He certainly did that against Vancouver in the preseason, setting up both of Portland’s goals.

According to WhoScored.com, Portland has attacked through the middle of the pitch more than any other team so far this season (28 per cent). That’s not exactly a surprise. As mentioned, Valeri pulls the strings. They also have a pair of solid central midfielders in Diego Chara and David Guzman who are both comfortable on the ball, and of course, a U.S. international midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who loves cutting into the middle from his new position on the left wing.

See how central Nagbe (#6) played last weekend. And the same could be said for Timbers Designated Player Sebastián Blanco (#10), who has been playing on the right wing.

With these types of players, it’s easy to see why Portland are so good in the middle.

The ‘Caps, of course, have a pretty strong spine themselves, as we saw last weekend with key defensive performances from the likes of Matias Laba and Russell Teibert in midfield and Tim Parker and Kendall Waston at the back.

The Timbers are well aware of that, which is why I’m expecting them to attack the flanks – as they did in the preseason and as Porter alluded to last weekend. 

“More width obviously,” he said when asked how to win those types of matches. “You get more width then maybe you find more gaps central. I just didn’t think we found quite enough.”

So there you have it.

It’s always a fun, and intriguing, battle when these longtime rivals come together, and I wouldn’t expect Saturday afternoon to be any different.