New York Red Bulls vs. Portland Timbers: Follow-up acts are tall tasks
Cup winners visit Shield holders.
When will it be time to worry in Portland? Riding a six-game unbeaten streak into Red Bull Arena, that time isn’t now, but 18 games into their title defense, the Timbers are still below the red line. The longer the season goes on, the more it feels like 2014, the year Portland followed a first-place regular-season finish in the Western Conference by missing the playoffs.
[The Red Bulls] only stand on better ground because the Eastern Conference, well, is the Eastern Conference."
The issues that year were similar. The defense never came around, while the attack became too dependent on Diego Valeri. This year, the Timbers’ defense has already conceded 29 goals, and while Valeri has had help going forward from Fanendo Adi, the offense still lacks other options.
Throughout the 2014 season, small signs of hope (like the current six-game run) kept the team from hitting the panic button. Come game 34, it was too late. The Timbers were out of the playoffs.
Superficially, the Red Bulls seem to be in slightly better shape, sitting in fourth in their conference. But they actually have a worse record than Portland, and only stand on better ground because the Eastern Conference, well, is the Eastern Conference.
The team’s defense is better than Sunday’s opponent, having conceded “only” 25 goals, but their attack has been more enigmatic. 28 goals looks good in the abstract, but 15 have been clustered in three games (wins over Houston, Dallas, and NYCFC). The rest of the season? The Red Bulls, shutout seven times, are averaging less than a goal per game.
Throughout these teams’ squads, you see potential. Names like Sacha Kljestan, Valeri, Dax McCarty and Adi hint each can be special again. Just past the halfway point of the season, though, both teams are searching for their 2015 form. Portland is inching toward that level, but even after Sunday’s final whistle, both sides will still have work to do.
New York made its second major move of the season this week when it traded winger Lloyd Sam to rival D.C. United for general allocation money. The England-born Sam had been one of the team’s most effective players over the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but he was starting to let go of his hold on a starting spot. On Twitter, Sam initially said he was “in tears” about the move before tweeting about the warm welcome he got from DCU boss Ben Olsen.
I'm in tears right now
— Lloyd sam (@MrLloydSam) July 7, 2016
Just had a great conversation with Ben Olsen my new head coach.. Fills me with great confidence to hear his enthusiasm to come and get me..
— Lloyd sam (@MrLloydSam) July 7, 2016
While Sam’s departure dominated headlines around the Red Bulls, a couple of other prominent names could be returning to the squad on Sunday. Defender Kemar Lawrence is approaching the end of recovery window after a Copa America hamstring injury. Mid-week reports out of training were positive. Likewise, center back Damien Perrinelle’s recovery from November knee surgery continues to progress, having played 76 minutes mid-week against Club America. Midfielder Tyler Adams is still working his way back from a concussion.
For the Timbers, No. 1 goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey remains sidelined as he recovers from a torn finger ligament. Liam Ridgewell and Valeri, both out for Monday’s game at Colorado, returned to training this week, though Caleb Porter was predictably tight-lipped about their roles in New Jersey.
Player to watch: Darlington Nagbe
Whenever Valeri is out, Nagbe’s performance becomes more important, but against a New York Red Bulls team that advertises itself as a high-pressing, high-line kind of bunch, Nagbe’s role in the team’s midfield could be vital.
For a defense that’s been mistake-prone all season, Nagbe’s going to have to be diligent making himself available for balls played into the middle. Once in possession, he’ll have to punish Felipe’s aggressiveness as well as the Red Bulls’ risks at the back. Responding to pressure with passes to fullbacks is a recipe for a stalemate.
Nagbe has the talent to punish New York, but there’s one knock on him over the last few years, it’s been his tendency to be risk-averse. That’s why he and Valeri make such a good pair, but with the latter out, Darlington will need a little more Diego in his soles.
In a weekend where the three-times-a-year (if not more) meeting between Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid has become ballyhooed, a faceoff between two of the league’s next-generation stars should also be of note. Porter, coming off his first major honor, has quieted skeptics unsure he could make the leap from Akron, while the doubts surrounding Marsch’s fit in Mike Petke’s shoes have been quieted by a Supporters’ Shield.
Part of what separates Marsch and Porter from their former-player, up-and-coming peers are the notes of redemption. When Marsch joined New York before last season, many remembered him as the man who’d been prematurely fired in Montreal (often omitting the prematurely part). And when Porter was hired in Portland, he was still the guy who failed to qualify the U.S. for the London Olympics, a task that’s proven more difficult than fans originally assumed.
Now, each is a major trophy holder: Marsch: 2015 Supporters’ Shield; Porter: winner of the 2015 MLS Cup. Nobody’s dwelling on their downturns any longer.
Facts and figures
- This will be the seventh all-time MLS meeting between these two teams. New York holds a 3-1-2 advantage with its lone defeat coming in its most recent home match against the Timbers on May 24, 2014 (1-2).
- The Red Bulls have won each of their last five MLS home games by a combined score of 13-2. This includes clean sheets in each of their last four MLS home matches as well. Since June 20, 2015, New York has won 17 of its 20 MLS matches at home, counting postseason play (17W 3L).
- Portland is unbeaten in its last six MLS games (3W 3D) although its 0-0 draw on July 4th against Colorado was only the Timbers’ second clean sheet in their last 20 regular season MLS matches.
- Of players with at least 10 chances created this season, Diego Valeri (4.1) and Sacha Kljestan (4.0) are the only two MLS players averaging at least four per 90 minutes.
- The Red Bulls won just 38.3 percent of their duels in the first half against NYCFC on July 3. This was their lowest first half duel success rate this season, and only the fourth time this season they had fallen below 50 percent.
You read that home record. The Red Bulls are great at home, particularly going forward. Between Portland’s inconsistent defense and the uncertainty around Valeri and Ridgewell, give me New York: 2-0.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.