The LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers are set to kick off a big match on Sunday as the Galaxy look to bounce back from a road loss in one of MLS' toughest environments. I exchanged three questions with Michael Orr of Stumptown Footy to get a sense of what the Galaxy should expect from their opponents.
1. The Timbers are next to last in goals allowed this season. Futty and Kah seem to be doing alright, so where's the weak link on the back line?
Part of this answer is easy: Norberto Paparatto. Though he has been benched for the better part of a month now so can't be held responsible for the more recent issues. The four goals allowed against Seattle Sounders also make the overall total look worse than it probably is. But for the most part it's been a down to terrible individual mistakes (see Pa Modou Kah against Chivas USA; see Pa Modou Kah against Houston Dynamo; see Norberto Paparatto against Chicago Fire; see Norberto Paparatto against FC Dallas, etc.).
The past few weeks have been slightly better with Futty replacing Paparatto but even the longest-serving Timber contributed to this effort with an own-goal on Saturday against DC United. The outside backs have not been outstanding either, though pinning the team's inability to prevent opposition scoring on Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury would be harsh. It is fair to suggest that Alvas Powell was at least half-way responsible for Chivas USA's easy equalizer in mid-April.
2. How key is Diego Valeri to the success of the Timbers this season?
Diego Valeri is crucial to the success of Portland's attack, though we're learning he needs certain conditions for optimal performance. Last season it seemed Valeri could do no wrong, at least when he was healthy, but the start to 2014 has been more of a struggle. Part of that comes down to the type of players around him, namely having a strong left-sided player to help provide space and attract attention away from the Valeri-Darlington Nagbe combination. Last year that player was Rodney Wallace. This year, or at least on Saturday against DC, it was Steve Zakuani. Without that threat opening up midfield space, Valeri can still shine but the area beneath the striker is a bit more crowded and less than ideal.
All of that being said, when Valeri does turn it on, the Timbers are a very difficult team to defend against. Particularly as his relationship with Gaston Fernandez develops and Zakuani gets closer to whatever the phrase full fitness means.
3. Newcomer Gaston Fernandez leads the Timbers in goals. What has he brought, and is he the no. 1 forward now?
Fernandez seems to have won back the starting spot in the no. 9 role, though Maximiliano Urruti did hold it for several weeks and scored his second goal of the season on Saturday as a substitute. But Urruti is not as well suited for the kinds of runs and poaching that are necessary given the way many teams drop off to defend the Timbers. Fernandez is much craftier and slips in and out of spaces, popping up as the target for Valeri or Nagbe passes. Expect him to be the starter against the Galaxy on Sunday morning.
Joyful bounty of bonuses:
GK Donovan Ricketts
LB Michael Harrington
CB Futty Danso
CB Pa Kah
RB Jack Jewsbury
CM Diego Chara
CM Will Johnson
LM Steve Zakuani
ACM Diego Valeri
RM Darlington Nagbe
F Gaston Fernandez
Reported Missing: Rodney Wallace (ACL recovery), Frederic Piquionne ('family emergency')
And now, my answers to his questions:
1. Is Omar Gonzalez going to play? If not, who is his replacement and what is the impact on the Galaxy, particularly on set pieces?
Bruce Arena is on record saying that Omar Gonzalez will be fine, which I'm pretty sure is Bruce Arena of saying he's questionable and might not go. If we take into account Gonzalez' injury history, the upcoming World Cup, and the fact that Portland's mayor 3D printed the Timbers' pitch, I don't expect Gonzalez to be in the eighteen for this weekend's tilt.
When Gonzalez was removed against Colorado, Kofi Opare came in as his replacement and performed admirably. Leonardo has completely lost favor amongst LA Galaxy fans due to his ten cent head, but I do expect the two of them to be the center back pairing this weekend. Also interesting is the possibility of Robbie Rogers coming in at Left Back. It would be great for overlapping runs, but does LA need two defensive liabilities on the back line? However, if say Rogers starts at left back, Gargan shifts over, and DeLaGarza starts with Opare then one liability has been eliminated.
Gonzalez had like a month where he was killer on set pieces and now he's the set piece king. However, teams were pretty quick to double team/scratch/pull/greco-roman wrestle Gonzalez in the penalty area. Unless Rob Friend is out there, the Galaxy are fairly ineffective off set pieces.
2. So if Robbie Keane doesn't score, the Galaxy don't get a result, right?
Robbie Keane at this point is the Galaxy attack, as he was for much of last season. The new target forwards Bruce Arena brought in have combined for one goal in all competitions, so perhaps they're just regular type forwards. Part of that is Arena switching to a diamond formation with Donovan up top to get both Stefan Ishizaki and Baggio Husidic directly involved with the attack.
In truth, it's those midfield positions that have mean the most to LA thus far. Ishizaki is the only other player with multiple goals on the season, and it's their distribution that has opened things up for Robbie Keane. So it isn't a one man show, even if there only seems to be one man finishing at the moment.
3. Would Landon Donovan wait to break the MLS scoring record at home instead of on the road? Additionally, why hasn't he scored yet?
Every time Donovan has failed to break the scoring record, since he tied the record late last season, there has been an excuse. He wouldn't want to break the record on the road, he wouldn't want to break the record on a penalty.
Folk act like when Donovan breaks the record Don Garber is going to come out with the long lost Jules Rimet trophy and present it to Donovan along with the keys to a used Bugatti Veyron. True story: I was in the Bay Area when Barry Bonds broke the Home Run record. The Giants were terrible, but they'd sell out the stadium with fans who would leave after Bonds' last at bat. There were logos, there was a counter, there was merchandise.
Note that none of that has been done for Donovan. They'll make sure they get the ball Donovan breaks the record with, the crowd will likely be extra loud if it's at home. Even if it's on the road, any MLS crowd with a sense of history is going to give a standing ovation. He's just cold, not calculating. Bonds went through the same slumps going for his record.
Expected XI: Penedo; Gargan, Opare, DeLaGarza, Rogers; Juninho; Husidic, Donovan; Ishizaki; Samuel, Keane.
Known Injuries/Absences: Omar Gonzalez (knee), Marcelo Sarvas (knee), James Riley (knee), Todd Dunivant (not knee)