Toronto FC striker Jermain Defoe

Beating Vancouver never gets old.

When it’s a critical, late season home game, loaded with playoff implications, that win is even sweeter. Following a string of inconsistent results, the Timbers came into Saturday’s match needing a win—and only a win—to separate themselves from the Whitecaps. With only five games and 15 points left on offer, these two teams are the only realistic contestants for the fifth and final playoff spot, with seventh-place Colorado eight points off the pace.

It was the kind of game where you would expect the big-time players to step up. In a match that was otherwise statistically even, they made all the difference.

Diego Valeri—first and foremost—opened the scoring for Portland in the 28’. His stunning GOTW (and likely Goal of the Year candidate) proved to be all Portland needed. A great deal of credit, it has to be said, goes to Jorge Villafaña for delivering a perfect cross to be met by El Maestro’s cultured left foot. Fanendo Adi, who seemingly loves to score in bunches, added two goals off of two similar, perfectly-timed counter-attack through balls from Valeri and Darlington Nagbe. That’s the Timbers soccer we’ve wanted to see all year. 

Let’s not forget the Timbers defense, who recorded only their second clean sheet at home, and fourth overall. All four have come against Chivas USA and Vancouver. But, for the record, the formation with Valeri in the middle and a Kah/Ridgewell centerback pairing is now 2-0-1 with an 8-2 (+6) aggregate score:

Including the 6-0 thrashing of Alpha United in the Champions League on Tuesday, the Timbers are 9-0 to the good this week, and have a solid amount of momentum headed into their last trip to the Eastern timezone. 

Already 2-0 in Canada this year, the Timbers head to Toronto to face a TFC that has not lived up to expectations. 

Their “bloody big deal”—to bring in USMNT midfielder, Michael Bradley, from Italian giants AS Roma, and former QPR, Tottenham, and England hitman, Jermain Defoe—has simply not delivered results. The preseason consensus was to expect the Reds to emerge from their dormant state to take the weaker Eastern Conference by storm. Instead, D.C. United pulled off that feat while Toronto sit in seventh place, three points behind the playoff line. Their -4 goal differential (though +1 at home) is not indicative of a team that spent big to bring in a top holding midfielder and a goal scorer.  

Indeed, Bradley has had little positive impact on the TFC midfield, especially for a player of his stature. Despite being one of Toronto’s most heavily-used players, he doesn’t lead his own team in any of the major offensive or defensive midfield categories: Key Passes, Crosses, Recoveries, and Clearances/Blocks/Interceptions. In most cases he trails journeyman midfielder Collen Warner, and is third in CBI behind Warner and Warren Creavalle, but leads the team with five yellow cards.

The Reds, who recently snapped a five-match winless streak (three losses) with a home win over Chivas USA, are buoyed by the likely return of the aforementioned Defoe from an abductor strain/flirtation with a return to England. Despite having played in only two of his team’s previous eleven matches, Defoe leads his team in goals scored by a wide margin. His eleven tallies have tended to come in bunches (including three braces) so if healthy, the enigmatic striker is a dangerous poacher, and a threat to Portland’s hit-or-miss defending. Behind Defoe are Brazilian DP Gilberto, who has scored six of his seven goals in the last 12 games, categorizing him as “hot”, and EPL castoff Luke Moore, whose six goals are more disparate.

On the former Timbers watch, goalkeeper Joe Bendik has played every minute for the Reds this year, and will start on Saturday, while fan favorite Bright Dike, ever recovering from an Achilles injury, has played all of 21 minutes this year.

Caleb Porter had the luxury of resting the majority of his starting XI against Alpha United. Michael Harrington played the full 90’ against the Guyanese so Villafaña should reprise his role alongside Kah, Ridgewell, and Alvas Powell. El Sueño’s speed and precise crossing should give Toronto’s shaky defense fits.

The biggest question for Portland could very well be who starts up front. Fanendo Adi scored three times this week, but it’s near impossible to keep Maxi Urruti and his 9 goals off the pitch. Too bad Caleb Porter’s system basically makes it impossible to play them together. It’s a nice luxury to have.

Despite the fact that six of Toronto’s ten wins have come at home, their recent form includes three shutout losses at BMO Field. Combine that with the Timbers solid road form and MVP-caliber play from Diego Valeri, and there should be no reason to not expect three points. This is a team Portland should handle.

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