I crossed enemy lines to talk with William Conwell over at Stumptown Footy and get some intel on Saturday’s match in Portland. We exchanged questions and got long answers from both of us.
Here are your Three Questions But Really Six
We ask them...
The Blue Testament: Portland has started the season looking like a title contender with a 4-1-1 record. The attack is clicking with 16 goals so far (more than 3x what SKC has managed). What is different about this year's team from the Timbers who missed out on the playoffs last season?
Will Conwell: The Timbers made two big upgrades over the offseason, bringing in defensive midfielder David Guzman, and designated player and winger Sebastian Blanco to re-shape the side.
Guzman, 26, come to the Timbers from Costa Rican side Saprissa, taking over the spot left vacant by the retirement of Timbers' legend Jack Jewsbury over the offseason. However, where Jewsbury was a central midfielder forced into a holding role by circumstance and the miles on his legs, Guzman is an out and out defensive midfielder, at home shielding the defense, dropping into the back line, and holding possession while others press up the field. That is not to say that Guzman is not comfortable going forward; the Tico midfielder notched a goal and an assist in the Timbers' 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo in week 3.
Blanco, 29, is a versatile attacking midfielder out of Argentina, comfortable playing on either win or in the center of the pitch. Known as a smart contributor on either side of the ball, Blanco has already notched a pair of assists for the Timbers just six matches into the season, but it is his defensive work that has garnered the most praise from Timbers fans. Blanco works hard on defense, winning balls high up the pitch and coming back to contribute in the defensive end, qualities that were notedly missing from the player that he replaces: Lucas Melano.
These additions have allowed the Timbers to bring a whole new shape to their side, giving the team balance in the attack and support on defense. This structural change gives the Timbers the ability to attack from multiple angles and in multiple styles, making them able to adjust and break down even those defenses that are at first able to stymie them.
TBT: Most people in KC were happy to see Lawrence Olum land somewhere after leaving Sporting. Leaping Larry has started each of Portland's first six games. How has he been received by Timbers fans?
WC: The Timbers' tribulations at center back have been a regular theme for the side since early last season and Olum's extended use at the position has been met with resignation in the Rose City. However, as the season has progressed, Timbers fans have come to appreciate the steady, veteran play of Olum who has been reliable, if not perfect, since being pressed into action after expected starter Gbenga Arokoyo went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in preseason.
When Olum first joined the Timbers, it seemed that the team were looking at him primarily as a back up to David Guzman and Diego Chara in the midfield: a player who could step in when a starter was called up, injured, or suspended. His ability to play on the back line was simply a welcome bonus for the Timbers. However, Olum has since held off challenges from promising youngster Rennico Clarke and journeyman Amobi Okugo, all while quelling the fan's urging to find a starting-quality replacement for Arokoyo immediately.
Of course, it helps that this is not Olum's first time in Portland; the Kenyan international made his professional debut with the Timbers ten years ago in the USL, making 44 appearances for the Timbers from 2007 to 2008 before eventually ending up in Kansas City.
TBT: Adi just became the club's all-time leading scorer on Sunday. He's got five goals right now. Is it finally the year of Fanendo Adi? Over/Under 20 goals for him this year?
WC: Every year is the year of Fanendo Adi.
Since 2014, Adi has 4th-most goals in MLS. He's the only player in the top 16 for goals to not be All Star or Best XI in that span #RCTID https://t.co/Nmy0azqfsk— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) April 11, 2017
The Timbers' big man does look primed to score goals by the bucketful this season, but 46 in not-quite three seasons is nothing to shake a stick at already, so Timbers fans will always bristle a little at the suggestion that Adi is just now becoming a top striker in the league.
That being said, with Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco filling out the Timbers' attacking group, Adi should have service the likes of which most forwards -- especially most MLS forwards -- can only dream. Valeri is a veritable assist machine, while Nagbe and Blanco should both be more than capable of making things happen to free up Adi.
As perhaps the most physically dominant striker the league has ever seen -- on the ground at least; Adi's aerial game is weirdly lacking -- Adi presents a unique threat to defenses in MLS, one that most sides can only solve by fouling early and often and hoping that the referees do not give Adi and his large stature the benefit of the doubt. This gambit is frustrating to watch for Timbers fans, but it is hard to discount its effectiveness.
The other factor that might limit Adi's ability to break through the 20 goal barrier is the European and Mexican clubs that were publicly sniffing around him last summer and who will continue to do so this year if he can keep up anything like his current goalscoring clip. Adi will probably see out the year with the Timbers, but folks around here do live in constant fear that a bid will come in and prize him away from the side before the season is over.
Stumptown Footy Roster Prediction: Jake Gleeson; Alvas Powell, Roy Miller, Lawrence Olum, Marco Farfan; David Guzman, Diego Chara; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco; Fanendo Adi
The only real wrinkle here is the possibility of Vytas Andriuškevičius making his return at left back. The Lithuanian full back looked set to be a major part of the Timbers attack, combining with Nagbe down the left, but he has been hampered by injuries since the start of the season and Timbers' homegrown player Marco Farfan has stepped up in his absence.
They ask us...
Stumptown Footy: Where are the goals coming from for Sporting so far in 2017? Will that be enough, or do other players need to step up if the team want to contend this year?
Cody Bradley: Well until last week, they hadn't been coming. SKC have 5 goals - one of which was scored by the other team - and the other four goals have come from four different players. Dwyer finally got on the board last week as well as the new DP Gerso. If those two can continue to score goals then Sporting will be in pretty good shape. But it's definitely nice to see so many different players getting looks on goal. If the defense is going to continue to lock it down the way the season has started, a collaborative effort of sneaking in a goal or two each game may be enough to stay at the top of the table.
But obviously Dom needs to start scoring at a higher rate. He has missed far too many big chances this year. Even before scoring his first last weekend, a couple of huge opportunities were squandered. While there are plenty of guys capable of contributing goals this year, Dom needs to have the lion's share.
SF: While Kansas City have yet to start pouring in the goals, the side have allowed only two in five games; what has been key to Sporting's defensive record so far and just how sustainable is it?
CB: The largest part of it, for me, is the familiarity they have with each other. Ike Opara is the newest of the four on the back line and this is his 5th season with the club. Sinovic arrived in 2011 and Zusi & Besler were drafted in 2009. Plus, Besler & Sinovic were youth club teammates growing up in Kansas City. These guys all know each other very well. They can communicate without communicating. On top of all this, any Peter Vermes side is going to be very organized defensively. The other two factors lie on either side of the back line - Tim Melia in goal and Ilie Sanchez at holding mid. The two of them have been playing very well so far.
So I definitely believe this is sustainable. Obviously they won't be able to get shut-outs three out of five games all year long, but most of the success they are having should continue. They are all veterans in the back and nobody is playing out of their ability. If anything Graham Zusi will only improve in his defense on the right side. The same can be said for Sanchez as he learns the ins-and-outs of MLS.
SF: Midfielder Ilie Sanchez, forward Gerso Fernandez, and full back Graham Zusi appear to be the new additions to the SKC line up this year; what have you seen from them so far and how do they change things up for the Sporting side that Timbers fans will remember from 2016?
CB: I really like what Graham Zusi at right back has done for the team. KC has grown used to youth and experiments at outside back for the last couple seasons. Zusi brings a veteran presence and technical ability that has allowed them to build out of the back a little more. They take a short goal kicks every chance they get this year. His defense has also been better than expected.
Ilie Sanchez is playing a very, very important role in Peter Vermes' system. They love to throw numbers forward and being able to trust Sanchez to breakup counter attacks is huge. He is also key in what I mentioned above with Zusi and building from the back. Ilie is very calm and collected on the ball. Where you would normally see an MLS player be forced to boot the ball up the field, Sanchez confidently makes the right touch in traffic, allowing him to find the open man. Locking down this position also means Benny Feilhaber is more free to get involved in the attack. I am a HUGE fan. He makes me feel all warm and cozy when the ball is passed to him.
Gerso, or #Gershow, on the wing is everything that KC was not last year. Sporting got basically zero production from either wing all year long (one reason it wasn't a tough choice to move Zusi to RB). But Gerso is fast, skillful, and creative. He allows the team to play wide and attack from the outside. He draws defenders away from Dwyer in the middle of the field, who was on an island last year. Based on his career numbers he may not necessarily score a load of goals himself, but he is very important to this offense. I'm looking for him to rack up assists beating his man on the outside and pushing it across for Dwyer.
The Blue Testament Predicted lineup: Tim Melia, Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Ike Opara, Graham Zusi, Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber, Jimmy Medranda, Dom Dwyer, Gerso
Benny has missed the last two matches with a thigh strain and is working his way back. But I think he will get the nod.