Preseason results are a poor indicator of what one might expect in a genuine competitive match. February’s 2-2 preseason draw can be taken with a few coarse grains of salt, especially given United’s positionally-experimental lineup and Portland’s rotation-heavy squad that night. If anything can be gleaned from that evening, it might be that when Portland subbed in the same players likely to start Friday night, the Timbers steamrolled United and quickly made up two goals to level the scoreline. The Loons will have the first 45 minutes of that game in mind when they take the field Friday.
Looking back to 2010 when both Portland and Minnesota were members of the USL, the Timbers went 2-1-1 against the (then) NSC Minnesota Stars. Carrying all results from the first incarnation of the NASL forward to the present, the Timbers own a 16-13-14 all-time record against teams from Minnesota.
Chris Penso tied for the most red cards given last year with seven, while his 24 reds over the past four years place him second-highest over that period. Interestingly, Penso has been in the bottom half of his peers in terms of fouls given in that time. Statistically speaking, Penso is more likely to go to his pocket when he does see a foul than most of his counterparts.
For all of Portland’s strength in its front six, questions have remained at the back. That made the news of central defender Gbenga Arokoyo’s long-term injury this preseason especially challenging. He will not feature Friday, nor will first-round draft pick Jeremy Ebobisse, who is away on international duty with the U.S. U-20s.
In Minnesota’s corner, recent addition Jérôme Thiesson has yet to physically join the squad. Jermaine Taylor is likely to take the right back position until the Swiss international is ready to play.
In terms of squad building, each of these teams has put heavy stock in a talented attack while weaknesses lay in the back. From a neutral perspective, it makes for great viewing. For a die hard fan, it guarantees at least a few white knuckle moments.
Diego Valeri is one of MLS’s most talented playmakers in his preferred No. 10 role. With striker Fanendo Adi in front of him, recent DP-signing Sebastián Blanco to his right, and U.S. national team winger Darlington Nagbe on his left, Valeri has more than enough options to pick the Loons apart.
This means that defensively for Minnesota, much will rest on defensive midfielder Collen Warner. Not only will Warner need to get on Valeri and disrupt his rhythm, but as United’s backs necessarily follow their marks into dangerous places, Warner will be critical in filling the vacuum left behind by those defenders. Consider especially Nagbe who, unlike a traditional winger, has a penchant for dropping back and pulling his marking right back with him, creating space for overlapping runs by his full back. Taylor, who will most likely feature opposite Nagbe in Minnesota’s defense, found himself pulled out of position often in preseason and this matchup may be a dangerous one if left unchecked.
It may be that the best defense is a good offense for Minnesota. With Portland’s talent up top, expect much of the Loons’ offense to come on the break and expect right winger Kevin Molino to be a quick outlet on those counterattacks. Molino showed great work rate and an underrated ability to retain possession in the preseason and this will be crucial for pushing the ball up field.
Portland’s defensive weaknesses lay to the outside, so buildup through Molino and his counterpart on the left wing (be it Miguel Ibarra or Bashkim Kadrii) will be essential if Minnesota is planning an upset. If the Loons can find their way into the attacking third, and then overload the ball side of the pitch (one of the more interesting tactics Minnesota made use of in preseason), they can showcase some of the already-strong chemistry between Molino, attacking midfielder Johan Venegas, and forward Christian Ramirez.
The Timbers will have their chances at goal in this game, there is no question. They can win handily if they consistently finish those chances.
One doesn’t need to win the battle of possession to walk away with points. If United can keep its defense organized in the face of Portland’s movement, and if the Loons can keep the ball in the business end of the field when they get it there, the sky is the limit.