Match Preview: Timbers @ Toronto FC
The Timbers wilted in the Texas heat, dropping a critical Western conference game they were never really in. To their credit (acknowledged by Caleb Porter post match), Houston came in with plan: free kicks, corners, and counter attacks. The Dynamo executed it perfectly, and Portland had just about no answer.
It's best to move on.
The third of three consecutive road matches comes fittingly in Toronto, against a team that began the season in exile while awaiting the completion of the first phase of a $105 million expansion project at BMO Field.
The additional amenities reflect TFC’s greater ambitions. However, for a team that has never made the playoffs in 7 seasons in the weaker Eastern Conference, legitimacy needs to come via on-the-field success.
As one of MLS’s most EPL-centric franchises, TFC has done a phenomenal job of mirroring Premier League culture by aimlessly splashing out millions of dollars on name brand attackers and not much else. Last year, it was Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe; the latter skipped town after only 19 appearances (11 goals!). Undaunted, famously-unsuccessful ownership group Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) doubled down, doling out huge amounts of cash for USMNT striker Jozy Altidore and Juventus midfielder Sebastian Giovinco.
Headlines were certainly grabbed when the big American hitman announced his return from seven years in Europe. Altidore will, however, miss this match with a hamstring strain and is out 4-5 weeks overall.
Giovinco, the diminutive (we’re talking 5’5”) attacking mid is arguably the more important signing. The 28-year old Italian arrives in his prime from a properly big club, Juventus; you may have noticed their recent knocking off of Real Madrid en route to the Champions League Final. His $7 million salary makes him the highest paid player in MLS. The “Atomic Ant” is, in fact, the highest paid Italian footballer in the world.
Between Bradley, Defoe, Altidore, and Giovinco, you may be thinking TFC’s spending appears just a wee bit top heavy. Because they are.
Toronto, with all of their spending and name recognition up top, are downright unremarkable everywhere else. With 14 goals allowed, TFC are tied for third-bottom, while their 13 goals scored are only 9th best. Granted, this team has played only one home game.
The 3-5-1 Reds employ a back line of Damien Perquis, Nick Hagglund, academy product Ashtone Morgan, and Justin Morrow. Thirty-four year old Benoît Cheyrou is perhaps their most important, yet unheralded signing. The former Marseille standout was an excellent box-to-box midfielder in his day, making him one of the better such players in MLS.
It is poetic that the Timbers starting XI could reach full strength in the stadium where the injury cavalcade began. Will Johnson tweeted this weekend that T2’s draw against Real Monarchs SLC (RSL II) would be his final tune-up, hinting that the Captain could make his full Timbers debut on the very field where he broke his leg.
Johnson’s return coupled with Altidore’s absence is welcome respite for the inconsistent Timbers. It also heaps onus on Portland, who (for once) have a personnel advantage. Fanendo Adi scored the Timbers’ lone goal in Houston, breaking his 7-match dry spell, but hasn’t scored in consecutive matches all season. It’s that kind of inconsistency that has haunted Caleb Porter and his squad, who rarely lack effort but have yet to convert energy into points.
It helps to have everyone back.
Between Rodney Wallace, who needed a few weeks to recover from a sore knee, Diego Valeri, and now Will Johnson, the Timbers have everyone where they should be. Darlington Nagbe has been one of the Timbers’ best—if not the best—players all year, but hasn’t finished his chances. Toronto’s suspect back line may be the tonic for a snake-bitten attack.
With an even record on the road trip, but coming off a difficult loss, the Timbers need to rebound. Toronto FC have a few flashy names and a shiny renovated stadium, but are a house of cards with a losing record.
The month of May still has three games left, and despite a setback in Texas, the Timbers are steadily developing chemistry. All things considered, a 2-1 road trip would constitute progress and, dare we say, momentum coming home.