Skip to content

MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Portland ahead of Saturday’s trip to Seattle

Nov 2, 2013, 4:32 AM EDT

San Jose Earthquakes v Portland Timbers - Portland Timbers Tournament Getty Images

Ahead of Saturdays’ first-leg of this conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about the Portland Timbers: (Saturday’s match kicks off at 10 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN):

  • Valeri and Nagbe: Different peas in the same pod

They’re playmakers of different types, though calling Darlington Nagbe that would be a stretch. In three Major League Soccer seasons, Portland’s attacking midfielder has eight assists, yet as somebody who can operate in a number 10’s space, he’s shockingly reliable with his passes. Eschewing risk for accuracy, Nagbe’s pass completion rate of 85.4 percent was the highest among Major League Soccer’s attackers in 2013.

Contrast that with Diego Valeri, who only completed 73.1 percent of his passes (ranking 185th among all players in Major League Soccer). Willing to take the chances Nagbe won’t, Valeri led the league in assists (13). In Opta’s key pass stat (passes that lead to chances), he averaged 2.3 per 90 minutes. Nagbe? 1.4.

Together, each provides something the other does not, but there’s one playmaker here, even if both can drop into that role. And as Portland fans found out throughout the last two months of the season, if there’s one player that’s more likely to decide a match, it’s Diego Valeri.

[WATCH: Sounders-Timbers will be available on NBC Sports Live Extra]

  • The four-headed monster

The Timbers starting lineup is utterly predictable with one exception: The team’s number nine. At the point of their attack, the team has four options, with Caleb Porter’s choice potentially telling us how he plans to approach Saturday’s game:

    • Maxi Urruti, the late-season acquisition from Toronto, has been battling a hamstring injury and is unlikely to play. If he’s chosen, Porter will be selecting the group’s best goal poacher, Urruti’s positioning able to exploit the hole Valeri and Nagbe create. His pressing is also seen as a virtue.
    • Jose Valencia has started the team’s last three games and would be the option Porter chooses if he wants to test Djimi Traoré and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado with pace. That pace can also be used wide, to take on fullbacks Leo González, DeAndre Yedlin or Brad Evans.
    • Frederic Piquionne is the direct option. If Portland wants to test Marcus Hahnemann’s willingness to come out and challenge balls sent into his area, the 34-year-old is their best option.
    • Then there’s Ryan Johnson, the one-time first choice whose minutes have dwindled as the season’s progressed. In addition to experience, he offers a little bit of every of everything, though his tenacity distinguishes him from the others. He might be Saturday’s ‘play it safe’ option.

Going four deep at striker can be seen as special of frightening. Either your the U.S. Women’s National Team and have an enviable army, or the lack of a stand-out contributes to your indecisiveness. Caleb Porter has talked up the virtues of having four solid options, but at striker, quality may be better than quantity. Particularly when you’re playing with only one up top.

  • What does playoff experience mean?

When you see how Colorado and Montréal performed mid-week, you can’t help but notice teams light on playoff experience being controlled by more tested squads. Perhaps that was coincidence, or maybe we’re biased toward seeing what we want, but Houston and Seattle seemed more intense than their regular season selves. For Colorado and Montréal, it might as well have been game 34.

Portland’s in the same boat. Donovan Ricketts and Will Johnson have won MLS Cups, and Jack Jewsbury has been here before, but the rest of Saturday’s potential starters have only smatterings of playoff experience (at most). If that experience is important, Portland’s at a huge disadvantage against Seattle.

  • The importance of Will Johnson

That’s where Portland’s captain comes into play. If you could only have two experienced players, you’d probably want them in goal (or, maybe central defense) and central midfield. And although Diego Valeri has been Portland’s best player in 2013, Will Johnson has been their heartbeat. It’s hard to overestimate the value his vitality has brought to the team, something that translated into his numbers (nine regular season goals) and the team’s success.

Seattle may see Johnson in a different light. In last year’s playoffs, he was the subject of a homophobic slur from Marc Burch that saw the Seattle defender subsequently suspended. In this year’s last regular season meeting between the clubs, Johnson drew an elbow from Osvaldo Alonso that saw the Sounders’ midfielder ejected from the game. As Sigi Schmid put it after that game, “whenever things happen, Will Johnson always seems to be at the other end of things.”

Unless the unexpected happens again, Johnson’s most important role should bea  less controversial one: That of helping Diego Chará protect a vulnerable central defense. That two-man shield has helped Portland survive the season with their third and fourth choice central defenders (Futty Danso, Pa Modou Kah). Protecting that Gambia duo by cutting off access to opposing forwards is more crucial in Portland games than most.

Latest Posts
  1. Happy Anniversary Messi

    Sep 17, 2014, 1:20 PM EDT

    FC Barcelona v Club Leon - Joan Gamper Trophy Getty Images

    On this day 14 years ago, Barcelona signed Lionel Messi. The rest is history.

  2. UEFA Champions League Preview: Manchester City vs. Bayern Munich

    Sep 17, 2014, 12:35 PM EDT

    Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Getty Images

    European giants clash as Manchester City travels to Germany to take on the mighty Bayern squad.

  3. WATCH: 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final highlights

    Sep 17, 2014, 11:50 AM EDT

    2014 U.S. Open Cup - Final Getty Images

    Check out full match highlights from Seattle’s 3-1 extra-time win over Philadelphia in the U.S. Open Cup Final.

  4. Men In Blazers podcast: A happy PL return, while Spencer Lanning talks ‘football’

    Sep 17, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT

    meninblazers

    In this new edition of the Men In Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo explore Johnny Football’s favorite football team.

  5. UEFA Champions League Preview: Chelsea vs. Schalke

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:50 AM EDT

    Chelsea v Swansea City - Premier League Getty Images

    Chelsea will look to open up their Champions League campaign with three points at Stamford Bridge.

  6. “The Men in Blazers Show” set for kick off on NBCSN

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:05 AM EDT

    Men In Blazers

    Full details of MiB’s new show, which debuts on Monday, September 22, can be found right here.

  7. Big changes coming to Merseyside stadiums

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    A Memorial Is Held For The 24th Anniversary Of The Hillsborough Tragedy Getty Images

    Liverpool is planning to expand at Anfield while Everton looks to build from the ground up.

  8. Pep Guardiola on Manchester United: ‘They don’t have enough money’

    Sep 17, 2014, 9:13 AM EDT

    FC Bayern Muenchen - Training & Press Conference Getty Images

    The Bayern Munich manager claims Manchester United didn’t have enough money to lure away star players from the German giants.

  9. Newcastle fans planning to protest Alan Pardew

    Sep 17, 2014, 8:23 AM EDT

    Newcastle United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Getty Images

    The “Sack Pardew” movement has reached new heights at St. James’ Park.

  10. Eden Hazard set to sign extension at Chelsea

    Sep 17, 2014, 7:37 AM EDT

    Chelsea v Swansea City - Premier League Getty Images

    Manager Jose Mourinho believes the Belgian international will have a new deal in place at Stamford Bridge within a month.

  11. Portland, DC United both win in CONCACAF Champions League play

    Sep 16, 2014, 11:57 PM EDT

    Urruti AP

    Maxi Urruti and Fabian Espindola both snatched braces as MLS sides went atop their groups.

  12. Iran manager Carlos Queiroz agrees to contract extension, vows to win Asia Cup

    Sep 16, 2014, 10:55 PM EDT

    Queiroz Getty Images

    Despite saying in June he would step down after the World Cup, the former Real Madrid manager has made a U-turn.

  13. Captain Clint fires Seattle Sounders to US Open Cup crown in 3-1 extra time win over Philadelphia

    Sep 16, 2014, 10:13 PM EDT

    Dempsey AP

    USMNT captain Clint Dempsey was Seattle’s savior in extra time as he delivered the winner in a 3-1 win and lifted his first-ever club trophy.

  14. Michael Bradley disagrees with president’s shot at Toronto roster

    Sep 16, 2014, 9:06 PM EDT

    Bradley AP

    President of Toronto’s ownership group, Tim Leiweke had harsh words for the Toronto FC locker room. Michael Bradley disagrees.

  15. Report: FA to overhaul work permit rules to cut down on non-EU players

    Sep 16, 2014, 8:23 PM EDT

    Dyke Getty Images

    Insanely strict new rules proposed by FA chairman Greg Dyke would eliminate non-EU players from the lower leagues completely and slash the amount in the Premier League by around 50%.

  16. Newcastle winger Jonas Gutierrez reveals he has cancer

    Sep 16, 2014, 7:46 PM EDT

    Gutierrez AP

    We now know why Jonas Gutierrez has barely featured for Newcastle in the last year or so.

  17. Jack Wilshere injured yet again to compound Arsenal’s woes

    Sep 16, 2014, 7:09 PM EDT

    Wilshere AP

    The man who can’t stay on the pitch has tweaked a very problematic part of his body.

  18. VIDEO: Real Madrid make history, notch 1000th goal in European competition

    Sep 16, 2014, 6:29 PM EDT

    Karim Benzema AP

    Benzema bags Real’s fifth goal on Tuesday, which turned out to be their 1000th goal in continental competitions. Wowza.

  19. Steven Gerrard saves Liverpool’s blushes; but should fans be worried?

    Sep 16, 2014, 5:59 PM EDT

    Liverpool FC v PFC Ludogorets Razgrad - UEFA Champions League Getty Images

    Gerrard scores last-gasp winner, but Liverpool under-performed again in narrow win.

  20. Arteta: Arsenal “didn’t perform well enough” at Borussia Dortmund

    Sep 16, 2014, 5:27 PM EDT

    mikel_arteta_ciro_immobile

    Arsenal’s captain notes the danger of falling behind at BVB, while Klopp calls his teams performance “nearly perfection.”

Featured video

Week 4: Saturday recap