Toronto FC v Portland Timbers – Preview

It’s the big one. The battle to define all battles. A fight to the death. Godzilla v Mothra. It’s 3 o’clock, school’s out, your classmates have gathered outside the gates, and the 2 nastiest bastards in your school are about to brawl. Who will reign supreme? It happens but once a year.

East versus West. Canada versus USA. ON (ninja edit – due to idiocy) versus OR.

Ladies and Gentlemen… it’s a clash of titanic proportions. Statistically, the two worst teams in the MLS. Toronto versus Portland.

Whilst this game might not be setting a fire into the belly of other supporters of the MLS, it’s a game that sets of supporters will be, in equal parts, nervous and excited and for. Nervous because he who drops 3 points will be handed the mantle of “Bottom of the league”; excited because it could put their team back within reach of the others clinging to the cliff face. Add in the horrific away form of Portland and the unpredictable nature of Toronto’s current form, and you’ve got a match that both teams consider a “must win”.

Form
Although our 1-1 draw with FC Dallas two Sundays ago didn’t dramatically improve our points total, it did end our 5 game losing streak. We are still looking for our first win since San Jose; the last time we picked up 3 points was 6 games ago. We’ve still only scored 4 in the last five games, conceding 13 in the process. In saying that, we’ve only conceded 2 since that horrific 5-0 downpour in Dallas.

Toronto have a goal difference of zero in their last 5 games, scoring and conceding 7. They’ve picked up 9 points in the last 5 games (2-1 & 3-2 home wins over Colorado and Vancouver respectively and a 1-0 road win at New England), but have since lost 2 games on the bounce (2-0 home loss to Houston and most recently a 2-1 loss in Chicago).

In the last 5 games, their form player has been 23-year old Luis Silva, who’s senior career has kicked into life over the last 5 games. Scoring 2 and assisting 2, Silva has started the last 5 games, doubling his tally to 10 starts all season, playing a part in 18 of Toronto’s games. Usually deployed on the left-wing, he’s going to be tough competition for Kosuke Kimura.

Line-ups
Toronto have quite a few absentees coming into the game against Portland, and looking at their favoured XI (players who’ve started the most in the last 5 games), we are guaranteed to see a much changed team on Wednesday night.

Before knowing about the absentees, you can see the faith Paul Mariner puts in his strongest team. Not only is it a settled back four, they’re a young back four, with an average age of 22 (all players who started over the last 5 games average at 26 years old).  But with yet-to-debut, new signing Darren O’Dea away on International duty with Ireland, Doneil Henry lining up for Canada, Logan Emory serving a suspension for his red against Chicago and 2nd choice right-back (and former Timber) Jeremy Hall out with an ankle injury, the pressure is on Adrian Cann, Ty Harden and Aaron Maund to fill in. Whilst Cann & Harden have played in over 150 MLS games combined, there have only been 10 starts racked up all season between the 3.

Their midfield resources are also to be expected to be depleted with the oft-questioned but increasingly influential Terry Dunfield (who incidentally debuted for Toronto against Portland last year) linking up with the Canada National Team. Playing and starting 20 games this season, Dunfield headed the winner in the 3-2 thriller against fellow Canadians (and former team) Vancouver Whitecaps and has formed a reliable partnership with club captain and ex-Germany International Torsten Frings in the center of midfield. Up front, expect to see new signing Eric Hassli come in for Jamaica’s Ryan Johnson, to play only his second game since the switch from Vancouver. He’ll most likely be partnering with Andrew Wiedeman, as Toronto’s top scorer Danny Koevermans is also ruled out with injury.

The only player listed as missing for Portland’s usual squad this week is Lovel Palmer, who with Ryan Johnson of TFC, is on international duty with Jamaica. We don’t have Mike Chabala to choose from since his trade to DC United, and after Troy Perkins’ recent (and controversial) move to Montreal, Donovan Ricketts will make his debut as our new #1.

Comparison
Looking at the recent passing statistics of Toronto, in every game but one (Colorado at home where there was a mariginal  difference of 13 more completed passes and a 3% better success rate), they’ve been out-passed both in terms of success and volume. In total, Toronto completed 1145 of  1707 passes, whilst their opponents completed 2089 of 2192. On average, that’s a pretty dismal 66.9% success rate to their opponents 79.4%. Looking at Portland, we fare much better. We attempt 2467 passes and complete 2009 – giving us a healthy success rate of 81.5%. Our opponents aren’t massively behind us, completing 1730 of 2169 passes equating to a rate of 78.9%. Regardless of this, we’ve still picked up 8 points less than Toronto in the same amount of games.

Whilst Gavin Wilkinson improved our passing statistics (originally discussed here), our end product is still poor. Where Toronto hold the advantage in this category is in spite of their poor passing (their average possession rate is a mere 39.7%), they’ve managed to still score goals.

It’s difficult to ascertain where that goal-scoring ability comes from. Toronto don’t create more key passes than us, in fact we’re much better in that department creating 47 to their 35 in the last 5 games. Ryan Johnson has twice been the benefactor of the slide rule pass, Toronto often focusing their game on slipping him in behind the opposition defence. With Eric Hassli potentially stepping in for the unavailable Johnson, Toronto will look at creating more service from the flanks. This is something they’ve been relatively successful with, hitting a cross success rate of 26%, which tidily breaks down to 26 of 100 crosses meeting their intended destination. Portland, on the other hand, hit 19 of 105 crosses, giving a success rate of 18.1%. We have to be wary of Silva and Lambe’s creativity on the wings, not to mention Torsten Frings’ set piece and long-range passing/shooting ability if we’re going to stop Toronto’s attack at the root.

Helping Toronto’s “Goals For” column, is the fact they have a good Shot On Target rate. Better than Portland over the last 5 games, they also accomplish it with less attempts. Where we have an average On Target rate of 32.5%, Toronto hit 39.4%. We take 75 attempts (26 on target) to achieve this, but Toronto take only 54 (22 on target). It’s been a well documented fact that Portland don’t create the right sort of chances, and for one reason or another, Kris Boyd is not taking the chances he does get. Toronto don’t have the same issue, and it can be expected that Hassli, Wiedeman or even a more attacking Luis Silva will be a handful for Mosquera et al. this Wednesday.

Predictions
It’s hard not to feel pessimistic at the moment. With the combination of negativity in the ranks (see the #GWOut hashtag), the loss of an influential (in the locker room at least) Goalkeeper and Defender, and that monkey hanging on our back (2 goals on the road all season…!), PTFC is not a harmonious club. But, we have to shake it off and carry on. If there was ever a time to change our fortunes, it would be now. On a two-game losing streak and with very influential players taken from a previously consistent line-up, Toronto can be beaten. It all depends on what mental and physical state we’re in.

Time off can be good for the mind, but the last 10 days we’ve had, it also allows time for players to (over)think. I worry that individual crises of confidence may have been impacted and those who felt insecure, only feel moreso now. The optimist in me can see the defensive and ball-playing improvements since Dallas trounced us (see my piece discussing the improving Chara and Jewsbury over at NASN Portland), but where others who should know better aren’t aware, I’m all too aware of what rocking the boat and tossing a few certain members overboard can do to a crew.

My only prediction is that it won’t be pretty, but it’s there to be taken.

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