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. WATCH: Reporter gets blasted by Whitecaps shot, barely misses a beat

    Apr 20, 2014, 11:05 PM EDT

    https://twitter.com/KelliTennant https://twitter.com/KelliTennant

    It’s actually amazing how quickly she regroups — in an instant — after getting blasted.

  2. Quick Six: Liverpool inches closer, Moyes’ reception, and the rest of the headlines from the BPL weekend

    Apr 20, 2014, 10:40 PM EDT

    norwich_city_liverpool AP

    Mourinho changes his communications style, while Villa tried to secure its sale.

  3. Report: Despite history, Evra tabs Suarez as PFA Player of the Year

    Apr 20, 2014, 10:07 PM EDT

    evra_suarez_2140860b Getty Images

    No one would blame Evra for ignoring Suarez’s season, but it really is a strong nod to the Frenchman’s class.

  4. WATCH: Blackpool coach sent off after hitting own player in face

    Apr 20, 2014, 9:18 PM EDT

    Blackpool v Burnley - Sky Bet Championship Getty Images

    Blackpool: Where dozens of tangerines and tennis balls on the pitch are second in weirdness to a coach striking his own player

  5. Newcastle defender laments first ever five-match Premier League skid

    Apr 20, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT

    Newcastle United v Swansea City Getty Images

    The Magpies have been brutal, and manager Alan Pardew’s return from suspension could require a job-saving performance.

  6. Report: Majority of Mexico’s World Cup roster slots are set

    Apr 20, 2014, 7:36 PM EDT

    RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Getty Images

    Plenty of notable names remain in question for Miguel Herrera.

  7. WATCH: Ale Bedoya’s half-volley part of Nantes blowout of Valenciennes

    Apr 20, 2014, 6:41 PM EDT

    Alejandro Bedoya AP

    Bedoya’s fifth Ligue 1 goal was part of a 6-2 win.

  8. Spain roundup: Atletico now three wins away, but Barcelona keeps pace

    Apr 20, 2014, 5:45 PM EDT

    Lionel Messi, Gorka Iraizoz AP

    Atletico Madrid is now 3 wins away from its first La Liga title since 1996, while Barcelona and Real Madrid can only hope for big mistakes

  9. Portland’s Porter praises form, but captain Johnson just wants wins

    Apr 20, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT

    MLS Real Salt Lake Timbers AP

    The Timbers fell to 0-3 on the road this season with Saturday’s 1-0 loss, complicating an already head-scratching start to the year that has Portland in second-to-last place out West at 0W-3L-4T.

  10. Americans Abroad Review: Bedoya buries one, Boyd bags brace

    Apr 20, 2014, 4:21 PM EDT

    Yevhen Khacheridi, Terrence Boyd AP

    How many Americans could find themselves in the UEFA Champions League next season?

  11. WATCH: Arlo White, Graeme Le Saux talk Everton and Manchester United

    Apr 20, 2014, 3:29 PM EDT

    Romelu Lukaku, Alexander Buttner AP

    Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux break down how having a clear identity continues to push Everton above teams while Manchester United’s lack of an identity continues to hurt the team.

  12. Despite season’s disappointing end, Blanc close to PSG extension

    Apr 20, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT

    Blanc Getty Images

    With domestic success and European disappointment, Paris Saint-Germain has decided to extend Blanc’s contract and the manager says it will be finalized in the coming days.

  13. Roberto Martinez revels in Everton’s humbling of Manchester United

    Apr 20, 2014, 2:53 PM EDT

    Cardiff City v Everton - Premier League Getty Images

    After Toffees do the double over United, Martinez praises Moyes work and his own side:

  14. Video: Liverpool’s title charge headed by selfless teamwork

    Apr 20, 2014, 2:40 PM EDT

    SuarezSterling

    Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling combined for Liverpool’s second goal, and video showed it wasn’t a fluke they knew exactly where their teammate was going to be.

  15. David Moyes vilified on return to Everton, as Manchester United nightmare continues

    Apr 20, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT

    Everton v Manchester United - Premier League Getty Images

    Everton’s old boss the villain on return to Goodison, as pastures new prove to be a nightmare:

  16. Berbatov scores a very Berbatov goal to send Monaco to the Champions League

    Apr 20, 2014, 1:42 PM EDT

    Berbatov Getty Images

    With the cheekiest of chips, Dimitar Berbatov sent Monaco to the Champions League with his winner against Nice.

  17. Villa owner Lerner releases head-scratching statement

    Apr 20, 2014, 1:09 PM EDT

    Lerner Getty Images

    Randy Lerner released a pretty useless statement on the Villa website today, refusing to rule out a sale of the club which has been reported in recent days.

  18. Everton 2-0 Manchester United: Toffees rampant in miserable return for Moyes

    Apr 20, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT

    Baines gave Everton perfect balance, as Martinez's side impressed once again. AP

    Nightmare return for Moyes, as Everton do double over United for first time since 1970:

  19. Video: Sunil Gulati believes US Soccer is headed in right direction

    Apr 20, 2014, 12:35 PM EDT

    Gulati Getty Images

    The US Soccer Federation president talks USWNT coaching search, men’s World Cup goals, and MLS growth with NBC’s John Strong.

Featured video

PST Extra: Race for the PL title