While not officially the midway point of the 2019 MLS season, LAFC's match in Portland sure feels like the close to the first half.
The match in Portland on Saturday is the Black & Gold's last regular-season date for 27 days. The Gold Cup is quickly approaching. Open Cup play begins in less than two weeks. There will be football, but we're saying goodbye to regular-season play for a bit.
Through 15 matches, LAFC is tops in all the categories that matter: wins (10), points (34), goals for (36), goals against (11), and goal differential (+25). An opportunity to reach 37 points in just 16 matches would be unprecedented in MLS - New York Red Bulls were on 32 points after 16 matches in their record-setting 2018 season.
Standing in LAFC's way is a Portland Timbers team finally returning home. The Timbers started the season on a 12-match road trip with Providence Park undergoing renovations. Gio Savarese's team is trending upwards after a rough start to the season and they'll be focused on reopening their building with nothing less than three points.
It's going to be a big night in Portland between two of the league's premier teams on Saturday. Here are the Toyota Keys to the Match:
Keep It Quick And Tidy
After trying to morph is side into a more possession-oriented team early in the season, Gio Savarese has gone back to the counterattacking style that carried the Timbers to the 2018 MLS Cup final. And the results have returned as well - Portland was winless in its first six matches and now has four wins in the last six.
The Timbers frustrate teams with a tight block of seven and sometimes eight players behind the ball. From there, they entice the opposition forward and thrive off the space in behind when the ball turns over.
LAFC is no stranger to breaking down teams but they'll need to be as clean as possible in possession when coming forward. That means finishing moves with positive results i.e. shots or combinations going into touch beyond the goal line instead of with misplaced passes or in 50/50 tackles. The more opportunities Portland has to regain possession with LAFC rushing forward, the more comfortable the Timbers will be.
Stay In Shape
The Timbers aren't afraid to cheat. Not in ways that break the rules, but by having Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, or Brian Fernandez stay high to get an advantage on the counter.
LAFC has to be aware of when those players are given that freedom. The Timbers are going to concede possession in order to maintain a tight block behind the ball. But LAFC can't commit numbers with reckless abandon in the attack. Inevitably, the ball will turn over at times and Portland will look to break quickly with an out ball to their free attackers. Once Valeri or Blanco are in space, teams are already behind the eight ball.
Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura will need to slide to either side to be sure someone is there to challenge those players before they turn upfield. The best way to snuff out Portland's attack is by contesting the first ball into those attackers and reacting to second balls with backtracking midfielders if necessary. To do that, occupying the proper spaces in when LAFC has the ball will be paramount.
Seize The Moments
The Timbers game model is somewhat simple but effective. Defend in numbers deep to force teams to commit forward and then thrive off mistakes. It's a strategy that limits open spaces towards their goal while opening end roads behind the opposition.
The best antidote to that problem? Goals.
LAFC is likely to see a lot of the ball but the moment they come within 30 yards of Portland's goal, they'll find themselves surrounded by green shirts and know a mistake could mean disaster back the other way. LAFC players need to be sharp on the ball and have ideas before receiving passes. Movements have to be quick and connected to open windows of space. And once those windows appear, the ball needs to be there on time for the finish.
The smallest advantages could be the difference between three points in Portland. LAFC will have the ball for long stretches but they'll need to seize opportunities early to truly take control of this match.