(Brian Fernandez photo courtesy Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)
A pair of Western Conference teams looking to re-ignite their momentum coming out of the All-Star break collide at Allianz Field on Sunday when both Minnesota United and the Portland Timbers look to extend their respective six-match unbeaten runs.
The Timbers (9-4-8) are playing their penultimate road match of the season, a schedule imbalance created by their season-opening 12-game trek across MLS while Providence Park was being renovated to expand seating. Portland is tied with Los Angeles FC for the most road wins in the league (6) and is 4-2-0 in its last six overall as it enters this match holding the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Most of that improvement has come after coach Giovanni Savarese settled on a back four of Jorge Moriera, Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante and Jorge Villafana. Since June 1, the Timbers are 4-0-0 when the quartet is in Savarese’s first XI, but they have brought stability. After conceding 17 goals in a disastrous 0-1-5 start, Portland has yielded only 15 in the last 15 contests.
“We’re working together as a unit,” Moreira told The Oregonian. “Everybody is on the same page. We continue to work toward the main goal, which is to make it to the playoffs. We feel like we have a really good team right now. We have great players on the team and everyone is contributing and doing their part.”
The four helped Portland record its fourth clean sheet in eight matches ahead of the break after a 4-0 rout of the Los Angeles Galaxy on July 27. Villafana had two assists while Cristhian Paredes had a brace on either side of halftime. The lone blemish on the win was losing reserve midfielder Dairon Asprilla to a red card in stoppage time after a confrontation with Galaxy defender Diego Polenta, ruling him out of this match.
After blazing into MLS with six goals in his first five league matches, Brian Fernandez’s brace against Seattle on July 21 marks his only two goals in the last five.
Minnesota (10-5-7) is in fifth place in the West, four points better than Portland but only three behind Seattle for second. The Loons are also 4-2-0 in their last six league contests and unbeaten in their last nine in all competitions (7-2-0).
They have quickly turned Allianz Field into a fortress, taking points in all but one of their 11 matches (6-4-1) in their new digs. Minnesota United has recorded back-to-back clean sheets there after being held to a scoreless draw by Vancouver on July 27.
The Loons controlled the tempo of the match and outshot the Whitecaps 17-8, but they failed to find a way around or through a defense-minded side. Vancouver pumped 37 crosses into the penalty yet only finished with one shot on target.
This match, however, figures to be a more open affair given the head-to-head history. All four previous matches have had at least five combined goals, with the last three all 3-2 affairs. Minnesota has won both home games by that count, including the most recent matchup Sept. 22. Romario Ibarra had a first-half brace and Michael Boxall added a third on 42 minutes before the Loons held off Portland after Alvas Powell and Sebastian Blanco scored after halftime.
“This’ll certainly be the best test we’ve had in this run of games where we haven’t been beaten because if you look at the front three, whether it be (Sebastian) Blanco, (Diego) Valeri, (Brian) Fernandez, they’ve got quality all over, and then underneath that, (Diego) Chara,” Loons coach Adrian Heath told the club’s official website. “They’ve gradually, over the last four or five years, put a really good team together. When you look at the results that they’ve been having, (that) they’ve been picking up, we know it’s going to be a difficult game for us.”