Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps: Opposites attract in Cascadia

MLS | Providence Park | Sun., May 22 | 4:30 p.m. ET

Billed as

Vancouver going for the early knockout.

The lowdown

Only two games into this season’s Cascadia Cup tournament, and the trophy’s almost claimed. Vancouver, the only one of the three Pacific Northwest teams to play two of its six Cascadia matches, has posted two 2-1 wins: one, March 19 at Seattle; the other, May 7 versus Portland. Despite mixed results before those derbies, the Whitecaps have used their rivalries as rallying points. Now, as #RivalryWeek (#RivalryWeak?) puts Vancouver-Portland center stage, Carl Robinson’s team is on the verge of a commanding lead in the race for this year’s Cup.

We dug into the numbers before, but they bear repeating: Cascadia Cup winners over the last five years have averaged 10 points, with runners up averaging 8.8. Should the Whitecaps win Sunday, they may have enough points to claim this year’s competition. Only once since Cascadia’s teams ascended to MLS has a club reached nine points and not won the Cup (Seattle, 2012).

Based on recent results, there’s every reason to think Vancouver (6-5-2) can reach that mark. The Whitecaps won the last meeting between the teams, a one-goal victory that sent the Timbers one their current three-game slide. Mired in ninth in the West, Portland (3-6-3) could be without its leading goal-scorer (Fanendo Adi), best ball-winner (Diego Chara) and No. 1 goalkeeper (Adam Kwarasey). Vancouver, on the other hand, has won three in a row, including last week’s four-goal performance at a Toronto team that went into the game with the league’s best defensive.

Vancouver is not without its own injury concerns, with Masato Kudo having broke his jaw nine days ago, but the team’s depth is starting to pay off. At BMO Field, Robinson was able leverage his bench, relying on defender Pa Modou Kah, midfielder Russell Tiebert and striker Erik Hurtado to post that impressive result. Most convincingly, the return of U.S. national team hopeful Kekuta Manneh led to the Gambia-born attacker’s best performance of the season. The two-goal, one-assist night earned Manneh, in a rare through-the-middle role, MLS Player of the Week honors.

Team news

Vancouver’s three-game winning streak has coincided with a return to health, one that sees only Kudo and Christian Dean (foot) as fitness concerns. Unfortunately, here-and-there suspensions continue to keep the team from full strength. Last week, defensive linchpin Kendall Waston served a one-game ban, while this week, it’s fullback Fraser Aird who pays the price for two yellows at BMO. Jordan Smith will go into the team, to Waston’s right.

Just as Vancouver’s surge has coincided with its squad’s health, injuries have paralleled Portland’s wane. The team had no clear answers mid-week on Adi or Chara. Kwarasey’s injury means Jake Gleeson will start in goal, while right back Alvas Powell and attacker Darren Mattocks are surefire absentees (wrist and knee surgeries, respectively). Zarek Valentin will start at fullback, while Mattocks’ absence likely forces Caleb Porter into a 4-2-3-1, putting Darlington Nagbe wide.

Player to watch: Pedro Morales

Vancouver’s captain has played different positions in each of the last three games, moving from regista to trequartista and, finally, wide playmaker in Toronto. Even in that role, Morales led the team in touches (71) and passes (53) during a one-goal, one-assist performance.

Where Morales plays on Sunday may be dictated by rotation, with Robinson being proactive about getting players rest amid a compact pre-Copa America schedule, but if the teams’ meeting two weeks ago is any indication, the Chilean Designated Player may be best back in his deep-lying role. Morales completed 59 of 64 passes coming into play from a position beside destroyer Matias Laba, with his 19 completed passes in the final third a game-high mark:

Those numbers won’t necessarily define a game, but they will tell you about its flow. If Morales is given time to complete 90 percent of his passes overall, and another 85 percent in the final third, odds are Vancouver is controlling the game and Portland is having a difficult time winning the ball. If his numbers don’t reach that level, the Timbers may be seeing more time in possession, or getting out too often on the counter.

The managers

Though they were born and raised a world apart – one in Wales, the other in the Pacific Northwest – “Robo” and Porter have a number of things in common. Both are of similar age (39 and 41), have MLS-playing backgrounds, and got their first pro-level head coaching job in 2013. Robinson was the far more accomplished player, earning 52 caps with the Welsh national team, but Porter has been the more successful coach, winning titles at both the professional and collegiate levels.

In the broad sense, both coaches share similar temperaments. Porter has an intensity Robinson rarely matches, but the messaging is the same. As Vancouver faced struggles early this season and chose to experiment with its formation, Robinson preached process, highlighting the team’s errors while emphasizing the needs to focus on effort over results. Now Porter, in the midst of a three-game slide, is echoing that perspective, calling Sunday’s performance against New York City FC the team’s best of the season, despite the Timbers’ 2-1 loss.

Facts and figures

  • Portland’s three-game losing streak is the first of the Caleb Porter era.
  • Vancouver is the only team in MLS to both allow and concede at least 20 goals this season. Its 13 games played is also tied for a high mark, with only FC Dallas and Sporting KC as busy thus far.
  • Portland’s minus-5 goal difference is worst in the Western Conference and only one off New York Red Bulls’ league-worst mark.
  • That goal difference is fueled by a Timbers defense that has conceded 22 times this season, most in MLS. The team is on pace to concede 62 times – 23 more than last season, and 10 more than any previous Porter season.

FourFourTwo prediction

Much like two weeks ago, when an ascending Timbers team visited a struggling Whitecaps side, Sunday’s derby provides a rallying point for the team trending in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, while Vancouver was largely healthy at BC Place, the Timbers are hamstrung. If the team is without Adi, there’ll be no reliable goal-scoring threat, and without Chara, Porter may have to move away from the team’s preferred 4-3-3 setup.

Backs against the wall, the Timbers could still get a 1-1, but without Adi, it’s too optimistic to expect more.

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Richard Farley is West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.